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We’ve all had the experience of reading about a bloody 
war or shocking crime and asking, “What is the world 
coming to?” But we seldom ask, “How bad was the 
world in the past'?” In this startling new book, the 
bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows 
that the world of the past was much worse. In fact, 
we may be living in the most peaceable era in our 
species’ existence. 

Evidence of a bloody history has always been 
around us: the genocides in the Old Testament 
and crucifixions in the New; the gory mutilations 
in Shakespeare and Grimm; the British mon- 
archs who beheaded their relatives and the 
American founders who dueled with their rivals; 
the nonchalant treatment in popular culture 
of wife-beating, child abuse, and the extermination 
of native peoples. 

Now the decline in these brutal practices can be 
quantified. With the help of more than a hundred 
graphs and maps. Pinker presents some astonishing 
numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as 
war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder 
rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times 
what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and 
frivolous executions were unexceptionable features 
of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for 
abolition. Wars between developed countries have 
vanished, and even in the developing world, wars 
kill a fraction of the numbers they did a few decades 
ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child 
abuse, cruelty to animals— all are substantially down. 

How could this have happened, if human nature 
has not changed? What led people to stop sacrificing 
children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, or 
burning cats and disemboweling criminals as forms 
of popular entertainment? Was it reading novels, cul- 
tivating table manners, fearing the police, or turning 
their energies to making money? Should the nuclear 
bomb get the Nobel Peace Prize for preventing World 

J(o#tinue4 an back: flap) 


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Language Learnability and Language Development 

Learnability and Cognition 

The Language Instinct 

How the Mind Works 

Words and Rides 

The Blank Slate 

The Stuff of Thought 


Visual Cognition 

Connections and Symbols (with Jacques Mehler) 

Lexical and Conceptual Semantics (with Beth Levin) 
The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004 







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First published in 2011 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 

10 987654321 

Copyright © Steven Pinker, 2011 
All rights reserved 

Excerpts from "MLF Lullaby," "Who's Next?/' and "In Old Mexico" by Tom Lehrer. Reprinted by permission 
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Alkatraz Corner Music Co. 

Pinker, Steven, 1954- 

The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined / Steven Pinker, 
p. cm. 

Includes bibliographical references and index. 

ISBN 978-0-670-02295-3 (hardback) 

1. Violence — Psychological aspects. 2. Violence — Social aspects. 3. Nonviolence — Psychological 
aspects. I. Title. 

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Eva, Carl, and Eric 
Jack and David 
Yael and Danielle 

and the world they will inherit 

What a chimera then is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, 
what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, 
repository of truth, sewer of uncertainty and error, the glory and the scum of 
the universe. 

— Blaise Pascal 





Human Prehistory 2 
Homeric Greece 4 
The Hebrew Bible 6 

The Roman Empire and Early Christendom 12 

Medieval Knights 17 

Early Modern Europe 18 

Honor in Europe and the Early United States 21 

The 20th Century 23 


The Logic of Violence 3 1 

Violence in Human Ancestors 36 

Kinds of Human Societies 40 

Rates of Violence in State and Nonstate Societies 47 

Civilization and Its Discontents 56 


The European Homicide Decline 61 
Explaining the European Homicide Decline 64 
Violence and Class 81 

Violence Around the World 85 
Violence in These United States 91 
Decivilization in the 1960s 106 

Recivilization in the 1990s 116 


Superstitious Killing: Human Sacrifice, Witchcraft, and Blood Libel 134 

Superstitious Killing: Violence Against Blasphemers, Heretics, 
and Apostates 139 

Cruel and Unusual Punishments 144 
Capital Punishment 149 
Slavery 133 

Despotism and Political Violence 158 
Major War 161 

Whence the Humanitarian Revolution? 168 

The Rise of Empathy and the Regard for Human Life 175 

The Republic of Letters arid Enlightenment Humanism 177 

Civilization and Enlightenment 184 

Blood and Soil 186 


Statistics and Narratives 190 

Was the 20th Century Really the Worst? 193 

The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels, Part 1: The Timing of Wars 200 

The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels, Part 2: The Magnitude of Wars 210 

The Trajectory of Great Power War 222 

The Trajectory of European War 228 

The Hobbesian Background and the Ages of Dynasties 
and Religions 231 

Three Currents in the Age of Sovereignty 235 

Counter-Enlightenment Ideologies and the Age of Nationalism 238 

Humanism and Totalitarianism in the Age of Ideology 244 

The Long Peace: Some Numbers 249 

The Long Peace: Attitudes and Events 255 

Is the Long Peace a Nuclear Peace? 268 

Is the Long Peace a Democratic Peace? 278 

Is the Long Peace a Liberal Peace? 284 
Is the Long Peace a Kantian Peace? 288 


The Trajectory of War in the Rest of the World 297 
The Trajectory of Genocide 320 
The Trajectory of Terrorism 344 
Where Angels Fear to Tread 361 


Civil Rights and the Decline of Lynching and Racial Pogroms 382 
Women's Rights and the Decline of Rape and Battering 394 

Children's Rights and the Decline of Infanticide, Spanking, 

Child Abuse, and Bullying 415 

Gay Rights, the Decline of Gay-Bashing, and the Decriminalization 
of Homosexuality 447 

Animal Rights and the Decline of Cruelty to Annuals 454 
Whence the Rights Revolutions? 475 
From History to Psychology 480 


The Dark Side 483 

The Moralization Gap and the Myth of Pure Evil 488 

Organs of Violence 497 

Predation 509 

Dominance 5x5 

Revenge 529 

Sadism 547 

Ideology 556 

Pure Evil, Inner Demons, and the Decline of Violence 569 


Empathy 373 
Self-Control 592 

Recent Biological Evolution? 611 
Morality and Taboo 622 
Reason 642 


Important but Inconsistent 672 
The Pacifist's Dilemma 678 
The Leviathan 680 
Gentle Commerce 682 
Feminization 684 
The Expanding Circle 689 
The Escalator of Reason 690 
Reflections 692 

NOTES 697 
INDEX 773 



l-i Everyday violence in a bodybuilding ad, 2940s 25 

1- 2 Domestic violence in a coffee ad, 1952 26 

2- 1 The violence triangle 35 

2-2 Percentage of deaths in warfare in nonstate and state societies 49 
2-3 Rate of death in warfare in nonstate and state societies 53 

2- 4 Homicide rates in the least violent nonstate societies compared to 

state societies 55 

3- 1 Homicide rates in England, 1200-2000: Gun's 1981 estimates 60 

3-2 Homicide rates in England, 1200-2000 61 

3-3 Homicide rates in five Western European regions, 1300-2000 63 

3-4 Homicide rates in Western Europe, 1300-2000, and in 
nonstate societies 64 

3-5 Detail from "Saturn," Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch 
(The Medieval Housebook, 14.73-80) 65 

3-6 Detail from "Mars," Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch 
(The Medieval Housebook, 1473-80) 66 

3-7 Percentage of deaths of English male aristocrats from violence, 1330-1829 81 
3-8 Geography of homicide in Europe, late 19th and early 21st centuries 86 
3-9 Geography of homicide in the world, 2004 88 

3-10 Homicide rates in the United States and England, 1900-2000 92 

3-n Geography of homicide in the United States, 2007 93 
3-12 Homicide rates in England, 1300-1923, and New England, 1630-1914 95 

3-13 Homicide rates in the northeastern United States, 1636-1900 96 

3-14 Homicide rates among blacks and whites in New York 
and Philadelphia, 1797-1932 97 

3-15 Homicide rates in the southeastern United States, 1620-1900 98 


3-16 Homicide rates in the southwestern United States and 
California , 1830-1914. 104 

3-17 Flouting conventions of cleanliness and propriety in the 1960s 112 

3-18 Homicide rates in the United States, 1930-2010, and 
Canada, 1961-2009 117 

3- 19 Homicide rates in five Western European countries, 1900-2009 118 

4-i Torture in medieval and early modern Europe 131 

4-2 Time line for the abolition of judicial torture 149 

4-3 Time line for the abolition of capital punishment in Europe 150 

4—4 Execution rate in the United States, 1640-2010 131 

4-5 Executions for crimes other than homicide in 
the United States, 1630-2002 152 

4-6 Time line for the abolition of slavery 156 

4-7 Real income per person in England, 1200-2000 171 

4-8 Efficiency in book production in England, 1470-1860S 172 

4- 9 Number of books in English published per decade, 1473-1800 173 

4- 10 Literacy rate in England, 1623-1923 174 

5- 1 Two pessimistic possibilities for historical trends in war 191 

5-2 Two less pessimistic possibilities for historical trends in war 192 

5-3 100 worst wars and atrocities in human history 197 

5-4 Historical myopia: Centimeters of text per century in a 
historical almanac 199 

5-5 Random and nonrandom patterns 205 
5-6 Richardson's data 203 

5-7 Number of deadly quarrels of different magnitudes, 1820-1932 211 

5-8 Probabilities of wars of different magnitudes, 1820-1997 212 
5-9 Heights of males (a normal or bell-curve distribution) 213 

5- 10 Populations of cities (a power-laiv distribution), plotted on 

linear and log scales 214 

5 -n Total deaths from quarrels of different magnitudes 221 

5-12 Percentage of years in which the great powers fought 
one another, 1 300-2000 224 

5-13 Frequency of wars involving the great powers, 1300-2000 223 

5-14 Duration of wars involving the great powers, 1300-2000 226 

5-15 Deaths in wars involving the great powers, 1300-2000 227 

5-16 Concentration of deaths in wars involving the 
great powers, 1300-2000 227 

5-17 Conflicts per year in greater Europe, 1400-2000 229 


Rate of death in conflicts in greater Europe, 1400-2000 230 

5-19 Length of military conscription, 48 major long-established nations, 

1970-2010 256 

5-20 Military personnel, United States and Europe, 1970-2000 257 

5-21 Percentage of territorial wars resulting in redistribution 
of territory, 1671-2000 259 

5-22 Nonnuclear states that started and stopped exploring 
nuclear weapons, 1947-2010 273 

5-23 Democracies, autocracies, and anocracies, 1946-2008 279 

5-24 International trade relative to GDP, 1887-2000 286 

5-25 Average number ofIGO memberships shared by a pair 
of countries, 1887-2000 290 

5- 26 Probability of militarized disputes between pairs of democracies 

and other pairs of countries, 1827-1992 294 

6-1 Rate of battle deaths in state-based armed conflicts, 1900-2007 301 

6-2 Rate of battle deaths in state-based armed conflicts, 1946-2008 301 

6-3 Number of state-based armed conflicts, 1946-2009 303 

6-4 Deadliness of interstate and civil wars, 1970-2007 304 

6-5 Geography of armed conflict, 2008 306 

6-6 Growth of peacekeeping, 1948-2008 314 

6-7 Rate of deaths in genocides, 1900-2008 338 

6-8 Rate of deaths in genocides, 1976-2008 340 

6- 9 Rate of deaths from terrorism, United States, 1970-2007 350 

6- io Rate of deaths from terrorism, Western Europe, 1970-2007 351 

6-n Rate of deaths from terrorism, worldwide except Afghanistan 
2001- and Iraq 2003- 352 

6- 12 Islamic and world conflicts, 1990-2006 366 

7- 1 Use of the terms civil rights, women's rights, children's rights, gay rights, 

and animal rights in English-language books, 1948-2000 380 

7-2 Lynchings in the United States, 1882-1969 384 

7-3 Hate-crime murders of African Americans, 1996-2008 386 

7-4 Nonlethal hate crimes against African Americans, 1996-2008 387 

7-5 Discriminatory and affirmative action policies, 1970-2007 390 

7-6 Segregationist attitudes in the United States, 1942-1997 391 

7-7 White attitudes to interracial marriage in the United States, 1978-2008 391 

7-8 Unfavorable opinions of African Americans, 1977-2006 392 

7-9 Rape prevention and response sticker 400 

7- 10 Rape and homicide rates in the United States, 1977-2008 402 

7-n Attitudes toivard women in the United States, 2970-1995 404 

7-12 Approval of husband slapping wife in the United States, 1968-1994 409 

7-13 Assaults by intimate partners, United States, 1993-2005 411 

7-14 Homicides of intimate partners in the United States, 1976-2005 411 

7-15 Domestic violence in England and Wales, 1995-2008 412 

7-16 Abortions in the world, 1980-2003 428 

7-17 Approval of spanking in the United States, Sweden, 
and New Zealand, 1954-2008 436 

7-18 Approval of corporal punishment in schools in the United States, 

1954-2002 438 

7-19 American states allowing corporal punishment in schools, 1954-2010 438 

7-20 Child abuse in the United States, 1990-2007 440 

7-21 Another form of violence against children 441 

7-22 Violence against youths in the United States, 1992-2003 443 

7-23 Time line for the decriminalization of homosexuality, 

United States and world 450 

7-24 Intolerance of homosexuality in the United States, 1973-2010 452 

7-25 Antigay hate crimes in the United States, 1996-2008 454 

7-26 Percentage of American households with hunters, 1977-2006 467 

7-27 Number of motion pictures per year in which animals 
were harmed, 1972-2010 469 

7-28 Vegetarianism in the United States and United Kingdom, 1984-2009 471 

8-1 Rat brain, showing the major structures involved in aggression 498 

8-2 Human brain, showing the major subcortical structures involved 
in aggression 502 

8-3 Human brain, showing the major cortical regions that regulate 
aggression 503 

8-4 Human brain, medial view 504 
8-5 The Prisoner's Dilemma 533 

8- 6 Apologies by political and religious leaders, 1900-2004 344 

9- 1 Implicit interest rates in England, 1170-2000 610 

9-2 The Flynn Effect: Rising IQ scores, 1947-2002 652 

10-1 The Pacifist's Dilemma 679 

10-2 How a Leviathan resolves the Pacifist's Dilemma 681 
io-3 How commerce resolves the Pacifist's Dilemma 682 
10-4 How feminization can resolve the Pacifist's Dilemma 686 

10- 5 How empathy and reason resolve the Pacifist's Dilemma 689 


T his book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever hap- 
pened in human history. Believe it or not — and I know that most people 
do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may 
be living in the most peaceable era in our species' existence. The decline, to 
be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it 
is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible 
on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of 

No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence. Daily existence 
is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped, or 
killed, and it's hard to develop sophisticated arts, learning, or commerce if the 
institutions that support them are looted and burned as quickly as they are 

The historical trajectory of violence affects not only how life is lived but 
how it is understood. What could be more fundamental to our sense of mean- 
ing and purpose than a conception of whether the strivings of the human race 
over long stretches of time have left us better or worse off? How, in particular, 
are we to make sense of modernity — of the erosion of family, tribe, tradition, 
and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and 
science? So much depends on how we understand the legacy of this transition: 
whether we see our world as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide, and 
war, or as a period that, by the standards of history, is blessed by unprece- 
dented levels of peaceful coexistence. 

The question of whether the arithmetic sign of trends in violence is positive 
or negative also bears on our conception of human nature. Though theories 
of human nature rooted in biology are often associated with fatalism about 
violence, and the theory that the mind is a blank slate is associated with prog- 
ress, in my view it is the other way around. How are we to understand the 
natural state of life when our species first emerged and the processes of his- 
tory began? The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we 
made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has 


xxii Preface 

decreased suggests that we started off nasty and that the artifices of civiliza- 
tion have moved us in a noble direction, one in which we can hope to continue. 

This is a big book, but it has to be. First I have to convince you that violence 
really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea 
invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties 
predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they 
are stoked by media that follow the watchword "If it bleeds, it leads." The 
human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with 
which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be 
beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people 
dying of old age. 1 No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may 
be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening 
news, so people's impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual 

Also distorting our sense of danger is our moral psychology. No one has 
ever recruited activists to a cause by announcing that things are getting better, 
and bearers of good news are often advised to keep their mouths shut lest they 
lull people into complacency. Also, a large swath of our intellectual culture is 
loath to admit that there could be anything good about civilization, modernity, 
and Western society. But perhaps the main cause of the illusion of ever-present 
violence springs from one of the forces that drove violence down in the first 
place. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in atti- 
tudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. 
By the standards of the mass atrocities of human history, the lethal injection 
of a murderer in Texas, or an occasional hate crime in which a member of an 
ethnic minority is intimidated by hooligans, is pretty mild stuff. But from a 
contemporary vantage point, we see them as signs of how low our behavior 
can sink, not of how high our standards have risen. 

In the teeth of these preconceptions, I will have to persuade you with num- 
bers, which I will glean from datasets and depict in graphs. In each case Til 
explain where the numbers came from and do my best to interpret the ways 
they fall into place. The problem I have set out to understand is the reduction 
in violence at many scales — in the family, in the neighborhood, between tribes 
and other armed factions, and among major nations and states. If the history 
of violence at each level of granularity had an idiosyncratic trajectory, each 
would belong in a separate book. But to my repeated astonishment, the global 
trends in almost all of them, viewed from the vantage point of the present, 
point downward. That calls for documenting the various trends between a 
single pair of covers, and seeking commonalities in when, how, and why they 
have occurred. 

Too many kinds of violence, I hope to convince you, have moved in the same 
direction for it all to be a coincidence, and that calls for an explanation. It is 
natural to recount the history of violence as a moral saga — a heroic struggle 

Preface xxiii 

of justice against evil — but that is not my starting point. My approach is scien- 
tific in the broad sense of seeking explanations for why things happen. We may 
discover that a particular advance in peacefulness was brought about by moral 
entrepreneurs and their movements. But we may also discover that the expla- 
nation is more prosaic, like a change in technology, governance, commerce, or 
knowledge. Nor can we understand the decline of violence as an unstoppable 
force for progress that is carrying us toward an omega point of perfect peace. 
It is a collection of statistical trends in the behavior of groups of humans in 
various epochs, and as such it calls for an explanation in terms of psychology 
and history: how human minds deal with changing circumstances. 

A large part of the book will explore the psychology of violence and non- 
violence. The theory of mind that I will invoke is the synthesis of cognitive 
science, affective and cognitive neuroscience, social and evolutionary psychol- 
ogy, and other sciences of human nature that I explored in How the Mind Works, 
The Blank Slate, and The Stuff of Thought. According to this understanding, the 
mind is a complex system of cognitive and emotional faculties implemented 
in the brain which owe their basic design to the processes of evolution. Some 
of these faculties incline us toward various kinds of violence. Others — "the 
better angels of our nature," in Abraham Lincoln's words — incline us toward 
cooperation and peace. The way to explain the decline of violence is to identify 
the changes in our cultural and material milieu that have given our peaceable 
motives the upper hand. 

Finally, I need to show how our history has engaged our psychology. Every- 
thing in human affairs is connected to everything else, and that is especially 
true of violence. Across time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend 
to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their 
women, and more likely to engage in trade. It's not easy to tell which of these 
happy traits got the virtuous circle started and which went along for the ride, 
and it's tempting to resign oneself to unsatisfying circularities, such as that 
violence declined because the culture got less violent. Social scientists distin- 
guish "endogenous" variables — those that are inside the system, where they 
may be affected by the very phenomenon they are trying to explain — from the 
"exogenous" ones — those that are set in motion by forces from the outside. 
Exogenous forces can originate in the practical realm, such as changes in tech- 
nology, demographics, and the mechanisms of commerce and governance. But 
they can also originate in the intellectual realm, as new ideas are conceived 
and disseminated and take on a life of their own. The most satisfying explana- 
tion of a historical change is one that identifies an exogenous trigger. To the 
best that the data allow it, I will try to identify exogenous forces that have 
engaged our mental faculties in different ways at different times and that 
thereby can be said to have caused the declines in violence. 

The discussions that try to do justice to these questions add up to a big 
book — big enough that it won't spoil the story if I preview its major 

xxiv Preface 

conclusions. The Better Angels of Our Nature is a tale of six trends, five inner 
demons, four better angels, and five historical forces. 

Six Trends (chapters 2 through 7). To give some coherence to the many devel- 
opments that make up our species' retreat from violence, I group them into 
six major trends. 

The first, which took place on the scale of millennia, was the transition from 
the anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which 
our species spent most of its evolutionary history to the first agricultural civ- 
ilizations with cities and governments, beginning around five thousand years 
ago. With that change came a reduction in the chronic raiding and feuding 
that characterized life in a state of nature and a more or less fivefold decrease 
in rates of violent death. I call this imposition of peace the Pacification Process. 

The second transition spanned more than half a millennium and is best 
documented in Europe. Between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, 
European countries saw a tenfold-to-fiftyfold decline in their rates of homicide. 
In his classic book The Civilizing Process, the sociologist Norbert Elias attributed 
this surprising decline to the consolidation of a patchwork of feudal territories 
into large kingdoms with centralized authority and an infrastructure of com- 
merce. With a nod to Elias, I call this trend the Civilizing Process. 

The third transition unfolded on the scale of centuries and took off around 
the time of the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment in the 17th 
and 18th centuries (though it had antecedents in classical Greece and the 
Renaissance, and parallels elsewhere in the world). It saw the first organized 
movements to abolish socially sanctioned forms of violence like despotism, 
slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment, 
and cruelty to animals, together with the first stirrings of systematic pacifism. 
Historians sometimes call this transition the Humanitarian Revolution. 

The fourth major transition took place after the end of World War IE The 
two-thirds of a century since then have been witness to a historically unprec- 
edented development: the great powers, and developed states in general, have 
stopped waging war on one another. Historians have called this blessed state 
of affairs the Long Peace. 2 

The fifth trend is also about armed combat but is more tenuous. Though it 
may be hard for news readers to believe, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, 
organized conflicts of all kinds — civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic 
governments, and terrorist attacks — have declined throughout the world. In 
recognition of the tentative nature of this happy development, I will call it the 
New Peace. 

Finally, the postwar era, symbolically inaugurated by the Universal Dec- 
laration of Human Rights in 1948, has seen a growing revulsion against 
aggression on smaller scales, including violence against ethnic minorities, 
women, children, homosexuals, and animals. These spin-offs from the concept 

Preface xxv 

of human rights — civil rights, women's rights, children's rights, gay rights, 
and animal rights — were asserted in a cascade of movements from the late 
1950s to the present day which I will call the Rights Revolutions. 

Five Inner Demons (chapter 8). Many people implicitly believe in the Hydrau- 
lic Theory of Violence: that humans harbor an inner drive toward aggression 
(a death instinct or thirst for blood), which builds up inside us and must peri- 
odically be discharged. Nothing could be further from a contemporary scien- 
tific understanding of the psychology of violence. Aggression is not a single 
motive, let alone a mounting urge. It is the output of several psychological 
systems that differ in their environmental triggers, their internal logic, their 
neurobiological basis, and their social distribution. Chapter 8 is devoted to 
explaining five of them. Predatory or instrumental violence is simply violence 
deployed as a practical means to an end. Dominance is the urge for authority, 
prestige, glory, and power, whether it takes the form of macho posturing 
among individuals or contests for supremacy among racial, ethnic, religious, 
or national groups. Revenge fuels the moralistic urge toward retribution, pun- 
ishment, and justice. Sadism is pleasure taken in another's suffering. And ide- 
ology is a shared belief system, usually involving a vision of utopia, that 
justifies unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited good. 

Four Better Angels (chapter 9). Humans are not innately good (just as they are 
not innately evil), but they come equipped with motives that can orient them 
away from violence and toward cooperation and altruism. Empathy (particu- 
larly in the sense of sympathetic concern) prompts us to feel the pain of others 
and to align their interests with our own. Self-control allows us to anticipate 
the consequences of acting on our impulses and to inhibit them accordingly. 
The moral sense sanctifies a set of norms and taboos that govern the interac- 
tions among people in a culture, sometimes in ways that decrease violence, 
though often (when the norms are tribal, authoritarian, or puritanical) in ways 
that increase it. And the faculty of reason allows us to extricate ourselves from 
our parochial vantage points, to reflect on the ways in which we live our lives, 
to deduce ways in which we could be better off, and to guide the application 
of the other better angels of our nature. In one section I will also examine the 
possibility that in recent history Homo sapiens has literally evolved to become 
less violent in the biologist's technical sense of a change in our genome. But 
the focus of the book is on transformations that are strictly environmental: 
changes in historical circumstances that engage a fixed human nature in dif- 
ferent ways. 

Five Historical Forces (chapter 10). In the final chapter I try to bring the psy- 
chology and history back together by identifying exogenous forces that favor 
our peaceable motives and that have driven the multiple declines in violence. 

xxvi Preface 

The Leviathan, a state and judiciary with a monopoly on the legitimate use of 
force, can defuse the temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for 
revenge, and circumvent the self-serving biases that make all parties believe 
they are on the side of the angels. Commerce is a positive-sum game in which 
everybody can win; as technological progress allows the exchange of goods 
and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, 
other people become more valuable alive than dead, and they are less likely 
to become targets of demonization and dehumanization. Feminization is the 
process in which cultures have increasingly respected the interests and values 
of women. Since violence is largely a male pastime, cultures that empower 
women tend to move away from the glorification of violence and are less likely 
to breed dangerous subcultures of rootless young men. The forces of cosmo- 
politanism such as literacy, mobility, and mass media can prompt people to 
take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of 
sympathy to embrace them. Finally, an intensifying application of knowledge 
and rationality to human affairs — the escalator of reason — can force people to 
recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of 
their own interests over others', and to reframe violence as a problem to be 
solved rather than a contest to be won. 

As one becomes aware of the decline of violence, the world begins to look 
different. The past seems less innocent; the present less sinister. One starts to 
appreciate the small gifts of coexistence that would have seemed utopian to 
our ancestors: the interracial family playing in the park, the comedian who 
lands a zinger on the commander in chief, the countries that quietly back away 
from a crisis instead of escalating to war. The shift is not toward complacency: 
we enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were 
appalled by the violence in their time and worked to reduce it, and so we 
should work to reduce the violence that remains in our time. Indeed, it is a 
recognition of the decline of violence that best affirms that such efforts are 
worthwhile. Man's inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moraliza- 
tion. With the knowledge that something has driven it down, we can also treat 
it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, "Why is there war?" we 
might ask, "Why is there peace?" We can obsess not just over what we have 
been doing wrong but also over what we have been doing right. Because we 
have been doing something right, and it would be good to know what, exactly, 
it is. 

Many people have asked me how I became involved in the analysis of violence. 
It should not be a mystery: violence is a natural concern for anyone who stud- 
ies human nature. I first learned of the decline of violence from Martin Daly 
and Margo Wilson's classic book in evolutionary psychology. Homicide, in 
which they examined the high rates of violent death in nonstate societies and 
the decline in homicide from the Middle Ages to the present. In several of my 

Preface xxvii 

previous books I cited those downward trends, together with humane devel- 
opments such as the abolition of slavery, despotism, and cruel punishments 
in the history of the West, in support of the idea that moral progress is com- 
patible with a biological approach to the human mind and an acknowledgment 
of the dark side of human nature. 3 1 reiterated these observations in response 
to the annual question on the online forum, which in 2007 was 
"What Are You Optimistic About?" My squib provoked a flurry of correspon- 
dence from scholars in historical criminology and international studies who 
told me that the evidence for a historical reduction in violence is more exten- 
sive than I had realized. 4 It was their data that convinced me that there was 
an underappreciated story waiting to be told. 

My first and deepest thanks go to these scholars: Azar Gat, Joshua Gold- 
stein, Manuel Eisner, Andrew Mack, John Mueller, and John Carter Wood. As 
I worked on the book, I also benefited from correspondence with Peter Brecke, 
Tara Cooper, Jack Levy, James Payne, and Randolph Roth. These generous 
researchers shared ideas, writings, and data and kindly guided me through 
fields of research that are far from my own specialization. 

David Buss, Martin Daly, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, David Haig, James 
Payne, Roslyn Pinker, Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington, and Polly Wiessner read 
most or all of the first draft and offered immeasurably helpful advice and 
criticism. Also invaluable were comments on particular chapters offered by 
Peter Brecke, Daniel Chirot, Alan Fiske, Jonathan Gottschall, A. C. Grayling, 
Niall Ferguson, Graeme Garrard, Joshua Goldstein, Capt. Jack Hoban, Stephen 
Leblanc, Jack Levy, Andrew Mack, John Mueller, Charles Seife, Jim Sidanius, 
Michael Spagat, Richard Wrangham, and John Carter Wood. 

Many other people responded to my inquiries with prompt explanations 
or offered suggestions that were incorporated into the book: John Archer, Scott 
Atran, Daniel Batson, Donald Brown, Lars-Erik Cederman, Christopher Cha- 
bris, Gregory Cochran, Leda Cosmides, Tove Dahl, Lloyd deMause, Jane 
Esberg, Alan Fiske, Dan Gardner, Pinchas Goldschmidt, Cmdr. Keith Gordon, 
Reid Hastie, Brian Hayes, Judith Rich Harris, Harold Herzog, Fabio Idrobo, 
Tom Jones, Maria Konnikova, Robert Kurzban, Gary Lafree, Tom Lehrer, 
Michael Macy, Steven Malby, Megan Marshall, Michael McCullough, Nathan 
Myhrvold, Mark Newman, Barbara Oakley, Robert Pinker, Susan Pinker, Ziad 
Obermeyer, David Pizarro, Tage Rai, David Ropeik, Bruce Russett, Scott Sagan, 
Ned Sahin, Aubrey Sheiham, Francis X. Shen, Lt. Col. Joseph Shusko, Richard 
Shweder, Thomas Sowell, Havard Strand, Ilavenil Subbiah, Rebecca Suther- 
land, Philip Tetlock, Andreas Foro Tollefsen, James Tucker, Staffan Ulfstrand, 
Jeffrey Watumull, Robert Whiston, Matthew White, Maj. Michael Wiesenfeld, 
and David Wolpe. 

Many colleagues and students at Harvard have been generous with their 
expertise, including Mahzarin Banaji, Robert Darnton, Alan Dershowitz, 
James Engell, Nancy Etcoff, Drew Faust, Benjamin Friedman, Daniel Gilbert, 

xxviii Preface 

Edward Glaeser, Omar Sultan Haque, Marc Hauser, James Lee, Bay McCulloch, 
Richard McNally, Michael Mitzenmacher, Orlando Patterson, Leah Price, 
David Rand, Robert Sampson, Steve Shavell, Lawrence Summers, Kyle 
Thomas, Justin Vincent, Felix Warneken, and Daniel Wegner. 

Special thanks go to the researchers who have worked with me on the data 
reported in these pages. Brian Atwood carried out countless statistical analy- 
ses and database searches with precision, thoroughness, and insight. William 
Kowalsky discovered many pertinent findings from the world of public opin- 
ion polling. Jean-Baptiste Michel helped develop the Bookworm program, the 
Google Ngram Viewer, and the Google Books corpus and devised an ingenious 
model for the distribution of the magnitude of wars. Bennett Haselton carried 
out an informative study of people's perceptions of the history of violence. 
Esther Snyder assisted with graphing and bibliographic searches. Ilavenil Sub- 
biah designed the elegant graphs and maps, and over the years has provided 
me with invaluable insight about the culture and history of Asia. 

John Brockman, my literary agent, posed the question that led to the writ- 
ing of this book and offered many helpful comments on the first draft. Wendy 
Wolf, my editor at Penguin, offered a detailed analysis of the first draft that 
did much to shape the final version. I'm enormously grateful to John and 
Wendy, together with Will Goodlad at Penguin UK, for their support of the 
book at every stage. 

Heartfelt thanks go to my family for their love and encouragement: Harry, 
Roslyn, Susan, Martin, Robert, and Kris. My greatest appreciation goes to 
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who not only improved the book's substance 
and style but encouraged me with her belief in the value of the project, and 
who has done more than anyone to shape my worldview. This book is dedi- 
cated to my niece, nephews, and stepdaughters: may they enjoy a world in 
which the decline of violence continues. 



The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. 

— L. P. Hartley 

I f the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget 
how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into 
the fabric of daily existence. Cultural memory pacifies the past, leaving us 
with pale souvenirs whose bloody origins have been bleached away. A woman 
donning a cross seldom reflects that this instrument of torture was a common 
punishment in the ancient world; nor does a person who speaks of a whipping 
boy ponder the old practice of flogging an innocent child in place of a misbe- 
having prince. We are surrounded by signs of the depravity of our ancestors' 
way of life, but we are barely aware of them. Just as travel broadens the mind, 
a literal-minded tour of our cultural heritage can awaken us to how differently 
they did things in the past. 

In a century that began with 9/11, Iraq, and Darfur, the claim that we are 
living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between 
hallucinatory and obscene. I know from conversations and survey data that 
most people refuse to believe it. 1 In succeeding chapters I will make the case 
with dates and data. But first I want to soften you up by reminding you of 
incriminating facts about the past that you have known all along. This is not 
just an exercise in persuasion. Scientists often probe their conclusions with a 
sanity check, a sampling of real-world phenomena to reassure themselves 
they haven't overlooked some flaw in their methods and wandered into a 
preposterous conclusion. The vignettes in this chapter are a sanity check on 
the data to come. 

What follows is a tour of the foreign country called the past, from 8000 BCE 
to the 1970s. It is not a grand tour of the wars and atrocities that we already 
commemorate for their violence, but rather a series of glimpses behind decep- 
tively familiar landmarks to remind us of the viciousness they conceal. The 
past, of course, is not a single country, but encompasses a vast diversity of 
cultures and customs. What they have in common is the shock of the old: a 


backdrop of violence that was endured, and often embraced, in ways that 
startle the sensibilities of a 21st-century Westerner. 


In 1991 two hikers stumbled upon a corpse poking out of a melting glacier in 
the Tyrolean Alps. Thinking that it was the victim of a skiing accident, rescue 
workers jackhammered the body out of the ice, damaging his thigh and his 
backpack in the process. Only when an archaeologist spotted a Neolithic cop- 
per ax did people realize that the man was five thousand years old. 2 

Otzi the Iceman, as he is now called, became a celebrity. He appeared on 
the cover of Time magazine and has been the subject of many books, docu- 
mentaries, and articles. Not since Mel Brooks's 2000 Year Old Man ("I have 
more than 42,000 children and not one comes to visit me") has a kilogenarian 
had so much to tell us about the past. Otzi lived during the crucial transition 
in human prehistory when agriculture was replacing hunting and gathering, 
and tools were first made of metal rather than stone. Together with his ax and 
backpack, he carried a quiver of fletched arrows, a wood-handled dagger, and 
an ember wrapped in bark, part of an elaborate fire-starting kit. He wore a 
bearskin cap with a leather chinstrap, leggings sewn from animal hide, and 
waterproof snowshoes made from leather and twine and insulated with 
grass. He had tattoos on his arthritic joints, possibly a sign of acupuncture, 
and carried mushrooms with medicinal properties. 

Ten years after the Iceman was discovered, a team of radiologists made a 
startling discovery: Otzi had an arrowhead embedded in his shoulder. He had 
not fallen in a crevasse and frozen to death, as scientists had originally sur- 
mised; he had been murdered. As his body was examined by the the CSI 
Neolithic team, the outlines of the crime came into view. Otzi had unhealed 
cuts on his hands and wounds on his head and chest. DNA analyses found 
traces of blood from two other people on one of his arrowheads, blood from 
a third on his dagger, and blood from a fourth on his cape. According to one 
reconstruction, Otzi belonged to a raiding party that clashed with a neighbor- 
ing tribe. He killed a man with an arrow, retrieved it, killed another man, 
retrieved the arrow again, and carried a wounded comrade on his back before 
fending off an attack and being felled by an arrow himself. 

Otzi is not the only millennia-old man who became a scientific celebrity at 
the end of the 20th century. In 1996 spectators at a hydroplane race in Ken- 
newick, Washington, noticed some bones poking out of a bank of the Colum- 
bia River. Archaeologists soon recovered the skeleton of a man who had 
lived 9,400 years ago. 3 Kennewick Man quickly became the object of highly 
publicized legal and scientific battles. Several Native American tribes fought 
for custody of the skeleton and the right to bury it according to their traditions, 
but a federal court rejected their claims, noting that no human culture has 


ever been in continuous existence for nine millennia. When the scientific stud- 
ies resumed, anthropologists were intrigued to learn that Kennewick Man 
was anatomically very different from today's Native Americans. One report 
argued that he had European features; another that he matched the Ainu, the 
aboriginal inhabitants of Japan. Either possibility would imply that the Amer- 
icas had been peopled by several independent migrations, contradicting DNA 
evidence suggesting that Native Americans are descendants of a single group 
of migrants from Siberia. 

For plenty of reasons, then, Kennewick Man has become an object of fasci- 
nation among the scientifically curious. And here is one more. Lodged in 
Kennewick Man's pelvis is a stone projectile. Though the bone had partially 
healed, indicating that he didn't die from the wound, the forensic evidence is 
unmistakable: Kennewick Man had been shot. 

These are just two examples of famous prehistoric remains that have 
yielded grisly news about how their owners met their ends. Many visitors to 
the British Museum have been captivated by Lindow Man, an almost perfectly 
preserved two-thousand-year-old body discovered in an English peat bog in 
1984. 4 We don't know how many of his children visited him, but we do know 
how he died. His skull had been fractured with a blunt object; his neck had 
been broken by a twisted cord; and for good measure his throat had been cut. 
Lindow Man may have been a Druid who was ritually sacrificed in three ways 
to satisfy three gods. Many other bog men and women from northern Europe 
show signs of having been strangled, bludgeoned, stabbed, or tortured. 

In a single month while researching this book, I came across two new sto- 
ries about remarkably preserved human remains. One is a two-thousand-year- 
old skull dug out of a muddy pit in northern England. The archaeologist who 
was cleaning the skull felt something move, looked through the opening at 
the base, and saw a yellow substance inside, which turned out to be a pre- 
served brain. Once again, the unusual state of preservation was not the only 
noteworthy feature about the find. The skull had been deliberately severed 
from the body, suggesting to the archaeologist that it was a victim of human 
sacrifice. 5 The other discovery was of a 4,600-year-old grave in Germany that 
held the remains of a man, a woman, and two boys. DNA analyses showed 
that they were members of a single nuclear family, the oldest known to science. 
The foursome had been buried at the same time — signs, the archaeologists 
said, that they had been killed in a raid. 6 

What is it about the ancients that they couldn't leave us an interesting corpse 
without resorting to foul play? Some cases may have an innocent explanation 
based in taphonomy, the processes by which bodies are preserved over long 
spans of time. Perhaps at the turn of the first millennium the only bodies that 
got dumped into bogs, there to be pickled for posterity, were those that had 
been ritually sacrificed. But with most of the bodies, we have no reason to 
think that they were preserved only because they had been murdered. Later 


we will look at the results of forensic investigations that can distinguish how 
an ancient body met its end from how it came down to us. For now, prehistoric 
remains convey the distinct impression that The Past is a place where a person 
had a high chance of coming to bodily harm. 


Our understanding of prehistoric violence depends on the happenstance of 
which bodies were accidentally embalmed or fossilized, and so it must be rad- 
ically incomplete. But once written language began to spread, ancient people 
left us with better information about how they conducted their affairs. 

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are considered the first great works of Western 
literature, and occupy the top slots in many guides to cultural literacy. Though 
these narratives are set at the time of the Trojan War around 1200 BCE, they were 
written down much later, between 800 and 650 BCE, and are thought to reflect 
life among the tribes and chiefdoms of the eastern Mediterranean in that era. 7 

Today one often reads that total war, which targets an entire society rather 
than just its armed forces, is a modern invention. Total war has been blamed 
on the emergence of nation-states, on universalist ideologies, and on tech- 
nologies that allow killing at a distance. But if Homer's depictions are accurate 
(and they do jibe with archaeology, ethnography, and history), then the wars 
in archaic Greece were as total as anything in the modern age. Agamemnon 
explains to King Menelaus his plans for war: 

Menelaus, my soft-hearted brother, why are you so concerned for these men? 
Did the Trojans treat you as handsomely when they stayed in your palace? 
No: we are not going to leave a single one of them alive, down to the babies 
in their mothers' wombs — not even they must live. The whole people must 
be wiped out of existence, and none be left to think of them and shed a tear. 8 

In his book The Rape of Troy, the literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall dis- 
cusses how archaic Greek wars were carried out: 

Fast ships with shallow drafts are rowed onto beaches and seaside commu- 
nities are sacked before neighbors can lend defensive support. The men are 
usually killed, livestock and other portable wealth are plundered, and 
women are carried off to live among the victors and perform sexual and 
menial labors. Homeric men live with the possibility of sudden, violent 
death, and the women live in fear for their men and children, and of sails 
on the horizon that may harbinger new lives of rape and slavery. 9 

We also commonly read that 20th-century wars were unprecedentedly 
destructive because they were fought with machine guns, artillery, bombers. 


and other long-distance weaponry, freeing soldiers from natural inhibitions 
against face-to-face combat and allowing them to kill large numbers of face- 
less enemies without mercy. According to this reasoning, handheld weapons 
are not nearly as lethal as our high-tech methods of battle. But Homer vividly 
described the large-scale damage that warriors of his day could inflict. Gott- 
schall offers a sample of his imagery: 

Breached with surprising ease by the cold bronze, the body's contents pour 
forth in viscous torrents: portions of brains emerge at the ends of quivering 
spears, young men hold back their viscera with desperate hands, eyes are 
knocked or cut from skulls and glimmer sightlessly in the dust. Sharp points 
forge new entrances and exits in young bodies: in the center of foreheads, 
in temples, between the eyes, at the base of the neck, clean through the mouth 
or cheek and out the other side, through flanks, crotches, buttocks, hands, 
navels, backs, stomachs, nipples, chests, noses, ears, and chins. . . . Spears, 
pikes, arrows, swords, daggers, and rocks lust for the savor of flesh and 
blood. Blood sprays forth and mists the air. Bone fragments fly. Marrow boils 
from fresh stumps. . . . 

In the aftermath of battle, blood flows from a thousand mortal or maim- 
ing wounds, turns dust to mud, and fattens the grasses of the plain. Men 
plowed into the soil by heavy chariots, sharp-hoofed stallions, and the san- 
dals of men are past recognition. Armor and weaponry litter the field. Bod- 
ies are everywhere, decomposing, deliquescing, feasting dogs, worms, flies, 
and birds . 10 

The 21st century has certainly seen the rape of women in wartime, but it 
has long been treated as an atrocious war crime, which most armies try to 
prevent and the rest deny and conceal. But for the heroes of the Iliad, female 
flesh was a legitimate spoil of war: women were to be enjoyed, monopolized, 
and disposed of at their pleasure. Menelaus launches the Trojan War when 
his wife, Helen, is abducted. Agamemnon brings disaster to the Greeks by 
refusing to return a sex slave to her father, and when he relents, he appropri- 
ates one belonging to Achilles, later compensating him with twenty-eight 
replacements. Achilles, for his part, offers this pithy description of his career: 
"I have spent many sleepless nights and bloody days in battle, fighting men 
for their women ." 11 When Odysseus returns to his wife after twenty years 
away, he murders the men who courted her while everyone thought he was 
dead, and when he discovers that the men had consorted with the concubines 
of his household, he has his son execute the concubines too. 

These tales of massacre and rape are disturbing even by the standards of 
modern war documentaries. Homer and his characters, to be sure, deplored the 
waste of war, but they accepted it as an inescapable fact of life, like the weather — 
something that everyone talked about but no one could do anything about. As 


Odysseus put it, "[We are men] to whom Zeus has given the fate of winding 
down our lives in painful wars, from youth until we perish, each of us." The 
men's ingenuity, applied so resourcefully to weapons and strategy, turned up 
empty-handed when it came to the earthly causes of war. Rather than framing 
the scourge of warfare as a human problem for humans to solve, they concocted 
a fantasy of hotheaded gods and attributed their own tragedies to the gods' 
jealousies and follies. 


Like the works of Homer, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was set in the late 
2nd millennium BCE but written more than five hundred years later. 12 
But unlike the works of Homer, the Bible is revered today by billions of people 
who call it the source of their moral values. The world's bestselling publica- 
tion, the Good Book has been translated into three thousand languages and 
has been placed in the nightstands of hotels all over the world. Orthodox Jews 
kiss it with their prayer shawls; witnesses in American courts bind their oaths 
by placing a hand on it. Even the president touches it when taking the oath of 
office. Yet for all this reverence, the Bible is one long celebration of violence. 

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the Lord God 
formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath 
of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord God took one of Adam's 
ribs, and made he a woman. And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because 
she was the mother of all living. And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she con- 
ceived, and bare Cain. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Cain talked 
with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that 
Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. With a world population 
of exactly four, that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about 
a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today. 

No sooner do men and women begin to multiply than God decides they 
are sinful and that the suitable punishment is genocide. (In Bill Cosby's com- 
edy sketch, a neighbor begs Noah for a hint as to why he is building an ark. 
Noah replies, "How long can you tread water?") When the flood recedes, God 
instructs Noah in its moral lesson, namely the code of vendetta: "Whoso shed- 
deth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." 

The next major figure in the Bible is Abraham, the spiritual ancestor of Jews, 
Christians, and Muslims. Abraham has a nephew, Lot, who settles in Sodom. 
Because the residents engage in anal sex and comparable sins, God immolates 
every man, woman, and child in a divine napalm attack. Lot's wife, for the 
crime of turning around to look at the inferno, is put to death as well. 

Abraham undergoes a test of his moral values when God orders him to take 
his son Isaac to a mountaintop, tie him up, cut his throat, and burn his body 
as a gift to the Lord. Isaac is spared only because at the last moment an angel 


stays his father's hand. For millennia readers have puzzled over why God 
insisted on this horrifying trial. One interpretation is that God intervened not 
because Abraham had passed the test but because he had failed it, but that is 
anachronistic: obedience to divine authority, not reverence for human life, 
was the cardinal virtue. 

Isaac's son Jacob has a daughter, Dinah. Dinah is kidnapped and raped — 
apparently a customary form of courtship at the time, since the rapist's family 
then offers to purchase her from her own family as a wife for the rapist. Dinah's 
brothers explain that an important moral principle stands in the way of this 
transaction: the rapist is uncircumcised. So they make a counteroffer: if all the 
men in the rapist's hometown cut off their foreskins, Dinah will be theirs. 
While the men are incapacitated with bleeding penises, the brothers invade 
the city, plunder and destroy it, massacre the men, and carry off the women 
and children. When Jacob worries that neighboring tribes may attack them in 
revenge, his sons explain that it was worth the risk: "Should our sister be 
treated like a whore ?" 13 Soon afterward they reiterate their commitment to 
family values by selling their brother Joseph into slavery. 

Jacob's descendants, the Israelites, find their way to Egypt and become too 
numerous for the Pharaoh's liking, so he enslaves them and orders that all 
the boys be killed at birth. Moses escapes the mass infanticide and grows up 
to challenge the Pharaoh to let his people go. God, who is omnipotent, could 
have softened Pharaoh's heart, but he hardens it instead, which gives him a 
reason to afflict every Egyptian with painful boils and other miseries before 
killing every one of their firstborn sons. (The word Passover alludes to the 
executioner angel's passing over the households with Israelite firstborns.) God 
follows this massacre with another one when he drowns the Egyptian army 
as they pursue the Israelites across the Red Sea. 

The Israelites assemble at Mount Sinai and hear the Ten Commandments, 
the great moral code that outlaws engraved images and the coveting of live- 
stock but gives a pass to slavery, rape, torture, mutilation, and genocide of 
neighboring tribes. The Israelites become impatient while waiting for Moses 
to return with an expanded set of laws, which will prescribe the death penalty 
for blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, talking back to parents, and working 
on the Sabbath. To pass the time, they worship a statue of a calf, for which the 
punishment turns out to be, you guessed it, death. Following orders from God, 
Moses and his brother Aaron kill three thousand of their companions. 

God then spends seven chapters of Leviticus instructing the Israelites on 
how to slaughter the steady stream of animals he demands of them. Aaron 
and his two sons prepare the tabernacle for the first service, but the sons slip 
up and use the wrong incense. So God burns them to death. 

As the Israelites proceed toward the promised land, they meet up with the 
Midianites. Following orders from God, they slay the males, burn their city, 
plunder the livestock, and take the women and children captive. When they 


return to Moses, he is enraged because they spared the women, some of whom 
had led the Israelites to worship rival gods. So he tells his soldiers to complete 
the genocide and to reward themselves with nubile sex slaves they may rape 
at their pleasure: "Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and 
kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women 
children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for your- 
selves." 14 

In Deuteronomy 20 and 21, God gives the Israelites a blanket policy for 
dealing with cities that don't accept them as overlords: smite the males with 
the edge of the sword and abduct the cattle, women, and children. Of course, 
a man with a beautiful new captive faces a problem: since he has just mur- 
dered her parents and brothers, she may not be in the mood for love. God 
anticipates this nuisance and offers the following solution: the captor should 
shave her head, pare her nails, and imprison her in his house for a month while 
she cries her eyes out. Then he may go in and rape her. 

With a designated list of other enemies (Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, 
Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites), the genocide has to be total: "Thou shalt 
save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them ... as 
the Lord thy God has commanded thee." 15 

Joshua puts this directive into practice when he invades Canaan and sacks 
the city of Jericho. After the walls came tumbling down, his soldiers "utterly 
destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and 
ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword." 16 More earth is scorched 
as Joshua "smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, 
and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly 
destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded." 17 

The next stage in Israelite history is the era of the judges, or tribal chiefs. 
The most famous of them, Samson, establishes his reputation by killing thirty 
men during his wedding feast because he needs their clothing to pay off a bet. 
Then, to avenge the killing of his wife and her father, he slaughters a thousand 
Philistines and sets fire to their crops; after escaping capture, he kills another 
thousand with the jawbone of an ass. When he is finally captured and his eyes 
are burned out, God gives him the strength for a 9/11-like suicide attack in 
which he implodes a large building, crushing the three thousand men and 
women who are worshipping inside it. 

Israel's first king, Saul, establishes a small empire, which gives him the 
opportunity to settle an old score. Centuries earlier, during the Israelites' exo- 
dus from Egypt, the Amalekites had harassed them, and God commanded 
the Israelites to "wipe out the name of Amalek." So when the judge Samuel 
anoints Saul as king, he reminds Saul of the divine decree: "Now go and smite 
Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay 
both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." 18 


Saul carries out the order, but Samuel is furious to learn that he has spared 
their king, Agag. So Samuel "hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord." 

Saul is eventually overthrown by his son-in-law David, who absorbs the 
southern tribes of Judah, conquers Jerusalem, and makes it the capital of a 
kingdom that will last four centuries. David would come to be celebrated in 
story, song, and sculpture, and his six-pointed star would symbolize his peo- 
ple for three thousand years. Christians too would revere him as the forerun- 
ner of Jesus. 

But in Hebrew scripture David is not just the "sweet singer of Israel," the 
chiseled poet who plays a harp and composes the Psalms. After he makes his 
name by killing Goliath, David recruits a gang of guerrillas, extorts wealth 
from his fellow citizens at swordpoint, and fights as a mercenary for the Phi- 
listines. These achievements make Saul jealous: the women in his court are 
singing, "Saul has killed by the thousands, but David by the tens of thou- 
sands." So Saul plots to have him assassinated . 19 David narrowly escapes before 
staging a successful coup. 

When David becomes king, he keeps up his hard-earned reputation for 
killing by the tens of thousands. After his general Joab "wasted the country 
of the children of Ammon," David "brought out the people that were in it, and 
cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes ." 20 Finally he 
manages to do something that God considers immoral: he orders a census. To 
punish David for this lapse, God kills seventy thousand of his citizens. 

Within the royal family, sex and violence go hand in hand. While taking a 
walk on the palace roof one day, David peeping-toms a naked woman, 
Bathsheba, and likes what he sees, so he sends her husband to be killed in 
battle and adds her to his seraglio. Later one of David's children rapes another 
one and is killed in revenge by a third. The avenger, Absalom, rounds up an 
army and tries to usurp David's throne by having sex with ten of his concu- 
bines. (As usual, we are not told how the concubines felt about all this.) While 
fleeing David's army, Absalom's hair gets caught in a tree, and David's general 
thrusts three spears into his heart. This does not put the family squabbles to 
an end. Bathsheba tricks a senile David into anointing their son Solomon as 
his successor. When the legitimate heir, David's older son Adonijah, protests, 
Solomon has him killed. 

King Solomon is credited with fewer homicides than his predecessors and 
is remembered instead for building the Temple in Jerusalem and for writing 
the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (though with a 
harem of seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines, he clearly 
didn't spend all his time writing). Most of all he is remembered for his epon- 
ymous virtue, "the wisdom of Solomon." Two prostitutes sharing a room give 
birth a few days apart. One of the babies dies, and each woman claims that 
the surviving boy is hers. The wise king adjudicates the dispute by pulling 


out a sword and threatening to butcher the baby and hand each woman a piece 
of the bloody corpse. One woman withdraws her claim, and Solomon awards 
the baby to her. "When all Israel heard of the verdict that the king had ren- 
dered, they stood in awe of the king, because they saw that he had divine 
wisdom in carrying out justice." 21 

The distancing effect of a good story can make us forget the brutality of 
the world in which it was set. Just imagine a judge in family court today adju- 
dicating a maternity dispute by pulling out a chain saw and threatening to 
butcher the baby before the disputants' eyes. Solomon was confident that the 
more humane woman (we are never told that she was the mother) would reveal 
herself, and that the other woman was so spiteful that she would allow a baby 
to be slaughtered in front of her — and he was right! And he must have been 
prepared, in the event he was wrong, to carry out the butchery or else forfeit 
all credibility. The women, for their part, must have believed that their wise 
king was capable of carrying out this grisly murder. 

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering 
in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their im- 
mediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the 
children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh 
tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial dis- 
obedience or for no reason at all. These atrocities are neither isolated nor 
obscure. They implicate all the major characters of the Old Testament, the ones 
that Sunday-school children draw with crayons. And they fall into a continu- 
ous plotline that stretches for millennia, from Adam and Eve through Noah, 
the patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and beyond. 
According to the biblical scholar Raymund Schwager, the Hebrew Bible "con- 
tains over six hundred passages that explicitly talk about nations, kings, or 
individuals attacking, destroying, and killing others. . . . Aside from the 
approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as 
the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the 
Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher's sword, in over one hundred other 
passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people." 22 Matthew 
White, a self-described atrocitologist who keeps a database with the estimated 
death tolls of history's major wars, massacres, and genocides, counts about 
1.2 million deaths from mass killing that are specifically enumerated in the 
Bible. (He excludes the half million casualties in the war between Judah and 
Israel described in 2 Chronicles 13 because he considers the body count his- 
torically implausible.) The victims of the Noachian flood would add another 
20 million or so to the total. 23 

The good news, of course, is that most of it never happened. Not only is 
there no evidence that Yahweh inundated the planet and incinerated its cities, 
but the patriarchs, exodus, conquest, and Jewish empire are almost certainly 
fictions. Historians have found no mention in Egyptian writings of the 


departure of a million slaves (which could hardly have escaped the Egyptians' 
notice); nor have archaeologists found evidence in the ruins of Jericho or 
neighboring cities of a sacking around 1200 BCE. And if there was a Davidic 
empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 
1st millennium BCE, no one else at the time seemed to have noticed it. 24 

Modern biblical scholars have established that the Bible is a wiki. It was 
compiled over half a millennium from writers with different styles, dialects, 
character names, and conceptions of God, and it was subjected to haphazard 
editing that left it with many contradictions, duplications, and non sequiturs. 

The oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible probably originated in the 10th century 
BCE. They included origin myths for the local tribes and ruins, and legal codes 
adapted from neighboring civilizations in the Near East. The texts probably 
served as a code of frontier justice for the Iron Age tribes that herded livestock 
and farmed hillsides in the southeastern periphery of Canaan. The tribes 
began to encroach on the valleys and cities, engaged in some marauding every 
now and again, and may even have destroyed a city or two. Eventually their 
myths were adopted by the entire population of Canaan, unifying them with 
a shared genealogy, a glorious history, a set of taboos to keep them from defect- 
ing to foreigners, and an invisible enforcer to keep them from each other's 
throats. A first draft was rounded out with a continuous historical narrative 
around the late 7th to mid-6th century BCE, when the Babylonians conquered 
the Kingdom of Judah and forced its inhabitants into exile. The final edit was 
completed after their return to Judah in the 5th century BCE. 

Though the historical accounts in the Old Testament are fictitious (or at best 
artistic reconstructions, like Shakespeare's historical dramas), they offer a 
window into the lives and values of Near Eastern civilizations in the mid-ist 
millennium BCE. Whether or not the Israelites actually engaged in genocide, 
they certainly thought it was a good idea. The possibility that a woman had a 
legitimate interest in not being raped or acquired as sexual property did not 
seem to register in anyone's mind. The writers of the Bible saw nothing wrong 
with slavery or with cruel punishments like blinding, stoning, and hacking 
someone to pieces. Human life held no value in comparison with unthinking 
obedience to custom and authority. 

If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am 
trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are miss- 
ing the point. The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians 
are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, 
rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions. Their reverence for 
the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has 
been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud 
among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored. 
And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that 
religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay 


it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from 
more modern principles. 


Christians downplay the wrathful deity of the Old Testament in favor of a 
newer conception of God, exemplified in the New Testament (the Christian 
Bible) by his son Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Certainly loving one's enemies and 
turning the other cheek constitute an advance over utterly destroying all that 
breatheth. Jesus, to be sure, was not above using violent imagery to secure the 
loyalty of his flock. In Matthew 10:34-37 he says: 

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, 
but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and 
the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother 
in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth 
father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son 
or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 

It's not clear what he planned to do with that sword, but there's no evidence 
that he smote anyone with the edge of it. 

Of course, there's no direct evidence for anything that Jesus said or did. 25 
The words attributed to Jesus were written decades after his death, and the 
Christian Bible, like the Hebrew one, is riddled with contradictions, uncor- 
roborated histories, and obvious fabrications. But just as the Hebrew Bible 
offers a glimpse into the values of the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, the 
Christian Bible tells us much about the first two centuries CE. Indeed, in that 
era the story of Jesus was by no means unique. A number of pagan myths told 
of a savior who was sired by a god, born of a virgin at the winter solstice, sur- 
rounded by twelve zodiacal disciples, sacrificed as a scapegoat at the spring 
equinox, sent into the underworld, resurrected amid much rejoicing, and sym- 
bolically eaten by his followers to gain salvation and immortality. 26 

The backdrop of the story of Jesus is the Roman Empire, the latest in a suc- 
cession of conquerors of Judah. Though the first centuries of Christianity took 
place during the Pax Romana (the Roman Peace), the alleged peacefulness has 
to be understood in relative terms. It was a time of ruthless imperial expan- 
sion, including the conquest of Britain and the deportation of the Jewish pop- 
ulation of Judah following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. 

The preeminent symbol of the empire was the Colosseum, visited today by 
millions of tourists and emblazoned on pizza boxes all over the world. In this 
stadium, Super Bowl-sized audiences consumed spectacles of mass cruelty. 
Naked women were tied to stakes and raped or torn apart by animals. Armies 
of captives massacred each other in mock battles. Slaves carried out literal 


enactments of mythological tales of mutilation and death — for example, a man 
playing Prometheus would be chained to a rock, and a trained eagle would 
pull out his liver. Gladiators fought each other to the death; our thumbs-up 
and thumbs-down gestures may have come from the signals flashed by the 
crowd to a victorious gladiator telling him whether to administer the coup de 
grace to his opponent. About half a million people died these agonizing deaths 
to provide Roman citizens with their bread and circuses. The grandeur that 
was Rome casts our violent entertainment in a different light (to say nothing 
of our “extreme sports" and "sudden-death overtime"). 27 

The most famous means of Roman death, of course, was crucifixion, the 
source of the word excruciating. Anyone who has ever looked up at the front 
of a church must have given at least a moment's thought to the unspeakable 
agony of being nailed to a cross. Those with a strong stomach can supplement 
their imagination by reading a forensic investigation of the death of Jesus 
Christ, based on archaeological and historical sources, which was published 
in 1986 in the Journal of the American Medical Association . 28 

A Roman execution began with a scourging of the naked prisoner. Using 
a short whip made of braided leather embedded with sharpened stones, 
Roman soldiers would flog the man's back, buttocks, and legs. According to 
the JAMA authors, "The lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal 
muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh." The prisoner's arms 
would then be tied around a hundred-pound crossbar, and he would be forced 
to carry it to a site where a post was embedded in the ground. The man would 
be thrown onto his shredded back and nailed through the wrists to the cross- 
bar. (Contrary to the familiar depictions, the flesh of the palms cannot support 
the weight of a man.) The victim was hoisted onto the post and his feet were 
nailed to it, usually without a supporting block. The man's rib cage was dis- 
tended by the weight of his body pulling on his arms, making it difficult to 
exhale unless he pulled his arms or pushed his legs against the nails. Death 
from asphyxiation and loss of blood would come after an ordeal ranging from 
three or four hours to three or four days. The executioners could prolong the 
torture by resting the man's weight on a seat, or hasten death by breaking his 
legs with a club. 

Though I like to think that nothing human is foreign to me, I find it impos- 
sible to put myself in the minds of the ancients who devised this orgy of 
sadism. Even if I had custody of Hitler and could mete out the desert of my 
choice, it would not occur to me to inflict a torture like that on him. I could not 
avoid wincing in sympathy, would not want to become the kind of person who 
could indulge in such cruelty, and could see no point in adding to the world's 
reservoir of suffering without a commensurate benefit. (Even the practical 
goal of deterring future despots, I would reason, is better served by maximiz- 
ing the expectation that they will be brought to justice than by maximizing 
the gruesomeness of the penalty.) Yet in the foreign country we call the past. 


crucifixion was a common punishment. It was invented by the Persians, car- 
ried back to Europe by Alexander the Great, and widely used in Mediterranean 
empires. Jesus, who was convicted of minor rabble-rousing, was crucified 
along with two common thieves. The outrage that the story was meant to 
arouse was not that petty crimes were punishable by crucifixion but that Jesus 
was treated like a petty criminal. 

The crucifixion of Jesus, of course, was never treated lightly. The cross 
became the symbol of a movement that spread through the ancient world, was 
adopted by the Roman Empire, and two millennia later remains the world's 
most recognizable symbol. The dreadful death it calls to mind must have made 
it an especially potent meme. But let's step outside our familiarity with Chris- 
tianity and ponder the mindset that tried to make sense of the crucifixion. By 
today's sensibilities, it's more than a little macabre that a great moral move- 
ment would adopt as its symbol a graphic representation of a revolting means 
of torture and execution. (Imagine that the logo of a Elolocaust museum was 
a shower nozzle, or that survivors of the Rwandan genocide formed a religion 
around the symbol of a machete.) More to the point, what was the lesson that 
the first Christians drew from the crucifixion? Today such a barbarity might 
galvanize people into opposing brutal regimes, or demanding that such tor- 
ture never again be inflicted on a living creature. But those weren't the lessons 
the early Christians drew at all. No, the execution of Jesus is The Good News, 
a necessary step in the most wonderful episode in history. In allowing the 
crucifixion to take place, God did the world an incalculable favor. Though 
infinitely powerful, compassionate, and wise, he could think of no other way 
to reprieve humanity from punishment for its sins (in particular, for the sin 
of being descended from a couple who had disobeyed him) than to allow an 
innocent man (his son no less) to be impaled through the limbs and slowly 
suffocate in agony. By acknowledging that this sadistic murder was a gift of 
divine mercy, people could earn eternal life. And if they failed to see the logic 
in all this, their flesh would be seared by fire for all eternity. 

According to this way of thinking, death by torture is not an unthinkable 
horror; it has a bright side. It is a route to salvation, a part of the divine plan. 
Like Jesus, the early Christian saints found a place next to God by being tor- 
tured to death in ingenious ways. For more than a millennium, Christian 
martyrologies described these torments with pornographic relish . 29 

Here are just a few saints whose names, if not their causes of death, are 
widely known. Saint Peter, an apostle of Jesus and the first Pope, was crucified 
upside down. Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, met his end on an 
X-shaped cross, the source of the diagonal stripes on the Union Jack. Saint 
Lawrence was roasted alive on a gridiron, a detail unknown to most Canadi- 
ans who recognize his name from the river, the gulf, and one of Montreal's 
two major boulevards. The other one commemorates Saint Catherine, who 
was broken on the wheel, a punishment in which the executioner tied the 


victim to a wagon wheel, smashed his or her limbs with a sledgehammer, 
braided the shattered but living body through the spokes, and hoisted it onto 
a pole for birds to peck while the victim slowly died of hemorrhage and shock. 
(Catherine's wheel, studded with spikes, adorns the shield of the eponymous 
college at Oxford.) Saint Barbara, namesake of the beautiful California city, 
was hung upside down by her ankles while soldiers ripped her body with iron 
claws, amputated her breasts, burned the wounds with hot irons, and beat her 
head with spiked clubs. And then there's Saint George, the patron saint of 
England, Palestine, the republic of Georgia, the Crusades, and the Boy Scouts. 
Because God kept resuscitating him, George got to be tortured to death many 
times. He was seated astride a sharp blade with weights on his legs, roasted 
on a fire, pierced through the feet, crushed by a spiked wheel, had sixty nails 
hammered into his head, had the fat rendered out of his back with candles, 
and then was sawn in half. 

The voyeurism in the martyrologies was employed not to evoke outrage 
against torture but to inspire reverence for the bravery of the martyrs. As in 
the story of Jesus, torture was an excellent thing. The saints welcomed their 
torments, because suffering in this life would be rewarded with bliss in the 
next one. The Christian poet Prudentius wrote of one of the martyrs, "The 
mother was present, gazing on all the preparations for her dear one's death 
and showed no signs of grief, rejoicing rather each time the pan hissing hot 
above the olive wood roasted and scorched her child." 30 Saint Lawrence would 
become the patron saint of comedians because while he was lying on the grid- 
iron he said to his tormenters, "This side's done, turn me over and have a bite." 
The torturers were straight men, bit players; when they were put in a bad light 
it was because they were torturing our heroes, not because they used torture 
in the first place. 

The early Christians also extolled torture as just deserts for the sinful. Most 
people have heard of the seven deadly sins, standardized by Pope Gregory I 
in 590 CE. Fewer people know about the punishment in hell that was reserved 
for those who commit them: 

Pride: Broken on the wheel 

Envy: Put in freezing water 

Gluttony: Force-fed rats, toads, and snakes 

Lust: Smothered in fire and brimstone 

Anger: Dismembered alive 

Greed: Put in cauldrons of boiling oil 

Sloth: Thrown in snake pits 31 

The duration of these sentences, of course, was infinite. 

By sanctifying cruelty, early Christianity set a precedent for more than a 
millennium of systematic torture in Christian Europe. If you understand the 


expressions to burn at the stake, to hold his feet to the fire, to break a butterfly on the 
wheel, to be racked with pain, to be drawn and quartered, to disembowel, to flay, to 
press, the thumbscrew, the garrote, a slozo burn, and the iron maiden (a hollow 
hinged statue lined with nails, later taken as the name of a heavy-metal rock 
band), you are familiar with a fraction of the ways that heretics were brutal- 
ized during the Middle Ages and early modern period. 

During the Spanish Inquisition, church officials concluded that the conver- 
sions of thousands of former Jews didn't take. To compel the conversos to 
confess their hidden apostasy, the inquisitors tied their arms behind their 
backs, hoisted them by their wrists, and dropped them in a series of violent 
jerks, rupturing their tendons and pulling their arms out of their sockets. 32 
Many others were burned alive, a fate that also befell Michael Servetus for 
questioning the trinity, Giordano Bruno for believing (among other things) 
that the earth went around the sun, and William Tyndale for translating the 
Bible into English. Galileo, perhaps the most famous victim of the Inquisition, 
got off easy: he was only shown the instruments of torture (in particular, the 
rack) and was given the opportunity to recant for "having held and believed 
that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not 
the center and moves." Today the rack shows up in cartoons featuring elasti- 
cized limbs and bad puns (Stretching exercises; Is this a wind-up? No pain no 
gain). But at the time it was no laughing matter. The Scottish travel writer Wil- 
liam Lithgow, a contemporary of Galileo's, described what it was like to be 
racked by the Inquisition: 

As the levers bent forward, the main force of my knees against the two 
planks burst asunder the sinews of my hams, and the lids of my knees were 
crushed. My eyes began to startle, my mouth to foam and froth, and my 
teeth to chatter like the doubling of a drummer's sticks. My lips were shiv- 
ering, my groans were vehement, and blood sprang from my arms, broken 
sinews, hands, and knees. Being loosed from these pinnacles of pain, I was 
hand-fast set on the floor, with this incessant imploration: "Confess! Con- 
fess!" 33 

Though many Protestants were victims of these tortures, when they got 
the upper hand they enthusiastically inflicted them on others, including a 
hundred thousand women they burned at the stake for witchcraft between 
the 15th and 18th centuries. 34 As so often happens in the history of atrocity, 
later centuries would treat these horrors in lighthearted ways. In popular 
culture today witches are not the victims of torture and execution but mis- 
chievous cartoon characters or sassy enchantresses, like Broom-Hilda, Witch 
Hazel, Glinda, Samantha, and the Halliwell sisters in Charmed. 

Institutionalized torture in Christendom was not just an unthinking 
habit; it had a moral rationale. If you really believe that failing to accept Jesus 


as one's savior is a ticket to fiery damnation, then torturing a person until he 
acknowledges this truth is doing him the biggest favor of his life: better a few 
hours now than an eternity later. And silencing a person before he can corrupt- 
others, or making an example of him to deter the rest, is a responsible public 
health measure. Saint Augustine brought the point home with a pair of anal- 
ogies: a good father prevents his son from picking up a venomous snake, and 
a good gardener cuts off a rotten branch to save the rest of the tree. 35 The 
method of choice had been specified by Jesus himself: "If a man abide not in 
me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and 
cast them into the fire, and they are burned." 36 

Once again, the point of this discussion is not to accuse Christians of 
endorsing torture and persecution. Of course most devout Christians today 
are thoroughly tolerant and humane people. Even those who thunder from 
televised pulpits do not call for burning heretics alive or hoisting Jews on the 
strappado. The question is why they don't, given that their beliefs imply that 
it would serve the greater good. The answer is that people in the West today 
compartmentalize their religious ideology. When they affirm their faith in 
houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thou- 
sand years. But when it comes to their actions, they respect modern norms of 
nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all 
be grateful. 


If the word saintly deserves a second look, so does the word chivalrous. The 
legends of knights and ladies in King Arthur's time have provided Western 
culture with some of its most romantic images. Lancelot and Guinevere are 
the archetypes of romantic love. Sir Galahad the embodiment of gallantry. 
Camelot, the name of King Arthur's court, was used as the title of a Broadway 
musical, and when word got out after John F. Kennedy's assassination that he 
had enjoyed the sound track, it became a nostalgic term for his administration. 
Kennedy's favorite lines reportedly were "Don't let it be forgot that once there 
was a spot / For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot." 

As a matter of fact, the knightly way of life ivas forgot, which is a good thing 
for the image of the knightly way of life. The actual content of the tales of 
medieval chivalry, which were set in the 6th century and written between the 
11th and the 13th, was not the stuff of a typical Broadway musical. The medi- 
evalist Richard Kaeuper tallied the number of acts of extreme violence in the 
most famous of these romances, the 13th-century Lancelot, and on average 
found one every four pages. 

Limiting ourselves to quantifiable instances, at least eight skulls are split 

(some to the eyes, some to the teeth, some to the chin), eight unhorsed men 


are deliberately crushed by the huge hooves of the victor's war-horse (so 
that they faint in agony, repeatedly), five decapitations take place, two entire 
shoulders are hewn away, three hands are cut off, three arms are severed at 
various lengths, one knight is thrown into a blazing fire and two knights 
are catapulted to sudden death. One woman is painfully bound in iron bands 
by a knight; one is kept for years in a tub of boiling water by God, one is 
narrowly missed by a hurled lance. Women are frequently abducted and we 
hear at one point of forty rapes. . . . 

Beyond these readily enumerable acts there are reports of three private 
wars (with, in one case, 100 casualties on one side, and with 500 deaths with 
poison in another). ... In one [tournament], to provide the flavor, Lancelot 
kills the first man he encounters with his lance and then, sword drawn, "struck 
to the right and the left, killing horses and knights all at the same time, cutting 
feet and hands, heads and arms, shoulders and thighs, striking down those 
above him whenever he met them, and leaving a sorrowful wake behind him, 
so that the whole earth was bathed in blood wherever he passed." 37 

How did the knights ever earn their reputation for being gentlemen? 
According to Lancelot, "Lancelot had the custom of never killing a knight who 
begged for mercy, unless he had sworn beforehand to do so, or unless he could 
not avoid it." 38 

As for their vaunted treatment of the ladies, one knight woos a princess by 
pledging to rape the most beautiful woman he can find on her behalf; his rival 
promises to send her the heads of the knights he defeats in tournaments. Knights 
do protect ladies, but only to keep them from being abducted by other knights. 
According to Lancelot, "The customs of the Kingdom of Logres are such that if 
a lady or a maiden travels by herself, she fears no one. But if she travels in the 
company of a knight and another knight can win her in battle, the winner can 
take a lady or maiden in any way he desires without incurring shame or blame." 39 
Presumably that is not what most people today mean by the word chivalry. 


In chapter 3 we will see that medieval Europe settles down a bit when the 
knightly warlords are brought under the control of monarchs in centralized 
kingdoms. But the kings and queens were hardly paragons of nobility them- 

Commonwealth schoolchildren are often taught one of the key events in 
British history with the help of a mnemonic: 

King Henry the Eighth, to six wives he was wedded: 

One died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded. 


Beheaded! In 1536 Henry had his wife Anne Boleyn decapitated on 
trumped-up charges of adultery and treason because she gave him a son that 
did not survive, and he had become attracted to one of her ladies-in-waiting. 
Two wives later he suspected Catherine Howard of adultery and sent her to the 
ax as well. (Tourists visiting the Tower of London can see the chopping block 
for themselves.) Henry was clearly the jealous type: he also had an old boyfriend 
of Catherine's drawn and quartered, which is to say hanged by the neck, taken 
down while still alive, disemboweled, castrated, decapitated, and cut into four. 

The throne passed to Henry's son Edward, then to Henry's daughter Mary, 
and then to another daughter, Elizabeth. "Bloody Mary" did not get her nick- 
name by putting tomato juice in her vodka but by having three hundred reli- 
gious dissenters burned at the stake. And both sisters kept up the family 
tradition for how to resolve domestic squabbles: Mary imprisoned Elizabeth 
and presided over the execution of their cousin. Lady Jane Grey, and Elizabeth 
executed another cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth also had 123 priests 
drawn and quartered, and had other enemies tortured with bone-crushing 
manacles, another attraction on display in the Tower. Today the British royal 
family is excoriated for shortcomings ranging from rudeness to infidelity. 
You'd think people would give them credit for not having had a single relative 
decapitated, nor a single rival drawn and quartered. 

Despite signing off on all that torture, Elizabeth I is among England's most 
revered monarchs. Her reign has been called a golden age in which the arts 
flourished, especially the theater. It's hardly news that Shakespeare's tragedies 
depict a lot of violence. But his fictional worlds contained levels of barbarity 
that can shock even the inured audiences of popular entertainment today. 
Henry V, one of Shakespeare's heroes, issues the following ultimatum of sur- 
render to a French village during the Hundred Years' War: 

why, in a moment look to see 
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand 
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; 

Your fathers taken by the silver beards. 

And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls. 

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes. 40 

In King Lear, the Duke of Cornwall gouges out the eyes of the Earl of Glouces- 
ter ("Out, vile jelly!"), whereupon his wife, Regan, orders the earl, bleeding from 
the sockets, out of the house: "Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell his 
way to Dover." In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock obtains the right to cut a 
pound of flesh from the chest of the guarantor of a loan. In Titus Andronicus, 
two men kill another man, rape his bride, cut out her tongue, and amputate 
her hands. Her father kills the rapists, cooks them in a pie, and feeds them to 


their mother, whom he then kills before killing his own daughter for having 
gotten raped in the first place; then he is killed, and his killer is killed. 

Entertainment written for children was no less grisly. In 1815 Jacob and 
Wilhelm Grimm published a compendium of old folktales that had gradually 
been adapted for children. Commonly known as Grimm's Fairy Tales, the col- 
lection ranks with the Bible and Shakespeare as one of the bestselling and 
most respected works in the Western canon. Though it isn't obvious from the 
bowdlerized versions in Walt Disney films, the tales are filled with murder, 
infanticide, cannibalism, mutilation, and sexual abuse — grim fairy tales 
indeed. Take just the three famous stepmother stories: 

• During a famine, the father and stepmother of Hansel and Gretel abandon 
them in a forest so that they will starve to death. The children stumble upon 
an edible house inhabited by a witch, who imprisons Hansel and fattens him 
up in preparation for eating him. Fortunately Gretel shoves the witch into a 
fiery oven, and "the godless witch burned to death in a horrible way." 41 

• Cinderella's stepsisters, when trying to squeeze into her slippers, take 
their mother's advice and cut off a toe or heel to make them fit. Doves notice 
the blood, and after Cinderella marries the prince, they peck out the stepsis- 
ters' eyes, punishing them "for their wickedness and malice with blindness 
for the rest of their lives." 

• Snow White arouses the jealousy of her stepmother, the queen, so the 
queen orders a hunter to take her into the forest, kill her, and bring back her 
lungs and liver for the queen to eat. When the queen realizes that Snow White 
has escaped, she makes three more attempts on her life, two by poison, one 
by asphyxiation. After the prince has revived her, the queen crashes their 
wedding, but "iron slippers had already been heated up for her over a fire of 
coals. . . . She had to put on the red-hot iron shoes and dance in them until she 
dropped to the ground dead." 42 

As we shall see, purveyors of entertainment for young children today have 
become so intolerant of violence that even episodes of the early Muppets have 
been deemed too dangerous for them. And speaking of puppetry, one of the most 
popular forms of children's entertainment in Europe used to be the Punch and 
Judy show. Well into the 20th century, this pair of bickering glove puppets acted 
out slapstick routines in ornate booths in English seaside towns. The literature 
scholar Harold Schechter summarizes a typical plot: 

It begins when Punch goes to pet his neighbor's dog, which promptly clamps 
its teeth around the puppet's grotesquely oversized nose. After prying the 
dog loose, Punch summons the owner, Scaramouche and, after a bit of crude 
banter, knocks the fellow's head "clean off his shoulders." Punch then calls 
for his wife, Judy, and requests a kiss. She responds by walloping him in the 


face. Seeking another outlet for his affection. Punch asks for his infant child 
and begins to cradle it. Unfortunately, the baby picks that moment to dirty 
itself. Always the loving family man. Punch reacts by beating the baby's 
head against the stage, then hurling its dead body into the audience. When 
Judy reappears and discovers what's happened, she is understandably upset. 
Tearing Punch's stick from his hands, she begins to lay into him. He wrestles 
the cudgel away from her, pummels her to death, and then breaks into a 
triumphant little song: 

Who'd be plagued with a wife 
That could set himself free 
With a rope or a knife 
Or a good stick, like me? 43 

Even Mother Goose nursery rhymes, which mostly date from the 17th and 
18th centuries, are jarring by the standards of what we let small children hear 
today. Cock Robin is murdered in cold blood. A single mother living in substan- 
dard housing has numerous illegitimate children and abuses them with whip- 
ping and starvation. Two unsupervised children are allowed to go on a 
dangerous errand; Jack sustains a head injury that could leave him with brain 
damage, while Jill's condition is unknown. A drifter confesses that he threw an 
old man down the stairs. Georgie Porgie sexually harasses underage girls, leav- 
ing them with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Humpty Dumpty 
remains in critical condition after a crippling accident. A negligent mother leaves 
a baby unattended on a treetop, with disastrous results. A blackbird swoops 
down on a domestic employee hanging up laundry and maliciously wounds 
her nose. Three vision-impaired mice are mutilated with a carving knife. And 
here comes a candle to light you to bed; here comes a chopper to chop off your 
head! A recent article in the Archives of Diseases of Childhood measured the rates 
of violence in different genres of children's entertainment. The television pro- 
grams had 4.8 violent scenes per hour; the nursery rhymes had 52.2A 


If you have an American ten-dollar bill handy, look at the man portrayed on 
it and give a moment's thought to his life and death. Alexander Hamilton is 
one of American history's most luminous figures. As a coauthor of the Feder- 
alist Papers, he helped to articulate the philosophical basis of democracy. As 
America's first secretary of the treasury, he devised the institutions that sup- 
port modern market economies. At other times in his life he led three battal- 
ions in the Revolutionary War, helped launch the Constitutional Convention, 
commanded a national army, established the Bank of New York, served in the 
New York legislature, and founded the Neiv York Post. 43 


Yet in 1804 this brilliant man did something that by today's standards was 
astonishingly stupid. Hamilton had long exchanged bitchy remarks with his 
rival Vice President Aaron Burr, and when Hamilton refused to disavow a 
criticism of Burr that had been attributed to him. Burr challenged him to a 
duel. Common sense was just one of many forces that could have pulled him 
away from a date with death. 46 The custom of dueling was already on the wane, 
and Hamilton's state of residence. New York, had outlawed it. Hamilton had 
lost a son to a duel, and in a letter explaining his response to Burr's challenge, 
he enumerated five objections to the practice. But he agreed to the duel anyway, 
because, he wrote, "what men of the world denominate honor" left him no 
other choice. The following morning he was rowed across the Hudson to face 
Burr on the New Jersey Palisades. Burr would not be the last vice president to 
shoot a man, but he was a better shot than Dick Cheney, and Hamilton died 
the following day. 

Nor was Hamilton the only American statesman to be drawn into a duel. 
Henry Clay fought in one, and James Monroe thought the better of challeng- 
ing John Adams only because Adams was president at the time. Among the 
other faces on American currency, Andrew Jackson, immortalized on the 
twenty-dollar bill, carried bullets from so many duels that he claimed to "rat- 
tle like a bag of marbles" when he walked. Even the Great Emancipator on the 
five-dollar bill, Abraham Lincoln, accepted a challenge to fight a duel, though 
he set the conditions to ensure that it would not be consummated. 

Formal dueling was not, of course, an American invention. It emerged dur- 
ing the Renaissance as a measure to curtail assassinations, vendettas, and street 
brawls among aristocrats and their retinues. When one man felt that his honor 
had been impugned, he could challenge the other to a duel and cap the violence 
at a single death, with no hard feelings among the defeated man's clan or entou- 
rage. But as the essayist Arthur Krystal observes, "The gentry . . . took honor so 
seriously that just about every offense became an offense against honor. Two 
Englishmen dueled because their dogs had fought. Two Italian gentlemen fell 
out over the respective merits of Tasso and Ariosto, an argument that ended 
when one combatant, mortally wounded, admitted that he had not read the poet 
he was championing. And Byron's great-uncle William, the fifth Baron Byron, 
killed a man after disagreeing about whose property furnished more game." 47 

Dueling persisted in the 18th and 19th centuries, despite denunciations by 
the church and prohibitions by many governments. Samuel Johnson defended 
the custom, writing, "A man may shoot the man who invades his character, as 
he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house." Dueling sucked in 
such luminaries as Voltaire, Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peel, 
Tolstoy, Pushkin, and the mathematician Evariste Galois, the last two fatally. 
The buildup, climax, and denouement of a duel were made to order for fiction 
writers, and the dramatic possibilities were put to use by Sir Walter Scott, Dumas 
pere, de Maupassant, Conrad, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, and Thomas Mann. 


The career of dueling showcases a puzzling phenomenon we will often 
encounter: a category of violence can be embedded in a civilization for centu- 
ries and then vanish into thin air. When gentlemen agreed to a duel, they were 
fighting not for money or land or even women but for honor, the strange com- 
modity that exists because everyone believes that everyone else believes that 
it exists. Honor is a bubble that can be inflated by some parts of human nature, 
such as the drive for prestige and the entrenchment of norms, and popped by 
others, such as a sense of humor. 48 The institution of formal dueling petered 
out in the English-speaking world by the middle of the 19th century, and in 
the rest of Europe in the following decades. Historians have noted that the 
institution was buried not so much by legal bans or moral disapproval as by 
ridicule. When "solemn gentlemen went to the field of honor only to be laughed 
at by the younger generation, that was more than any custom, no matter how 
sanctified by tradition, could endure." 49 Today the expression "Take ten paces, 
turn, and fire" is more likely to call to mind Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam 
than "men of honor." 


As our tour of the history of forgotten violence comes within sight of the pres- 
ent, the landmarks start to look more familiar. But even the zone of cultural 
memory from the last century has relics that feel like they belong to a foreign 

Take the decline of martial culture. 30 The older cities in Europe and the 
United States are dotted with public works that flaunt the nation's military 
might. Pedestrians can behold statues of commanders on horseback, beefcake 
sculptures of well-hung Greek warriors, victory arches crowned by chariots, 
and iron fencing wrought into the shape of swords and spears. Subway stops 
are named for triumphant battles: the Paris Metro has an Austerlitz station; 
the London Underground has a Waterloo station. Photos from a century ago 
show men in gaudy military dress uniforms parading on national holidays 
and hobnobbing with aristocrats at fancy dinners. The visual branding of 
long-established states is heavy on aggressive iconography, such as projectiles, 
edged weapons, birds of prey, and predatory cats. Even famously pacifistic 
Massachusetts has a seal that features an amputated arm brandishing a sword 
and a Native American holding a bow and arrow above the state motto, "With 
the sword we seek peace, but under liberty." Not to be outdone, neighboring 
New Hampshire adorns its license plates with the motto "Live Free or Die." 

But in the West today public places are no longer named after military vic- 
tories. Our war memorials depict not proud commanders on horseback 
but weeping mothers, weary soldiers, or exhaustive lists of names of the dead. 
Military men are inconspicuous in public life, with drab uniforms and little 
prestige among the hoi polloi. In London's Trafalgar Square, the plinth across 


from the big lions and Nelson's column was recently topped with a sculpture 
that is about as far from military iconography as one can imagine: a nude, 
pregnant artist who had been born without arms and legs. The World War I 
battlefield in Ypres, Belgium, inspiration for the poem "In Flanders Fields" 
and the poppies worn in Commonwealth countries on November 11, has just 
sprouted a memorial to the thousand soldiers who were shot in that war for 
desertion — men who at the time were despised as contemptible cowards. And 
the two most recent American state mottoes are Alaska's "North to the Future" 
and Hawaii's "The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness" (though 
when Wisconsin solicited a replacement for "America's Dairyland," one of the 
entries was "Eat Cheese or Die"). 

Conspicuous pacifism is especially striking in Germany, a nation that was 
once so connected to martial values that the words Teutonic and Prussian 
became synonyms for rigid militarism. As recently as 1964 the satirist Tom 
Lehrer expressed a common fear at the prospect of West Germany participat- 
ing in a multilateral nuclear coalition. In a sarcastic lullaby, the singer reassures 
a baby: 

Once all the Germans were warlike and mean, 

But that couldn't happen again. 

We taught them a lesson in 1918 

And they've hardly bothered us since then. 

The fear of a revanchist Germany was revived in 1989, when the Berlin Wall 
came down and the two Germanys made plans to reunite. Yet today German 
culture remains racked with soul-searching over its role in the world wars and 
permeated with revulsion against anything that smacks of military force. Vio- 
lence is taboo even in video games, and when Parker Brothers tried to introduce 
a German version of Risk, the board game in which players try to dominate a 
map of the world, the German government tried to censor it. (Eventually the 
rules were rewritten so that players were "liberating" rather than conquering 
their opponents' territories.) 51 German pacifism is not just symbolic: in 2003 
half a million Germans marched to oppose the American-led invasion of Iraq. 
The American secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, famously wrote the 
country off as part of "Old Europe." Given the history of ceaseless war on that 
continent, the remark may have been the most flagrant display of historical 
amnesia since the student who complained about the cliches in Shakespeare. 

Many of us have lived through another change in Western sensibilities 
toward military symbolism. When the ultimate military weapons, nuclear 
bombs, were unveiled in the 1940s and 1950s, people were not repelled, even 
though the weapons had recently snuffed out a quarter of a million lives and 
were threatening to annihilate hundreds of millions more. No, the world found 
them charming! A sexy bathing suit, the bikini, was named after a Micronesian 


atoll that had been vaporized by nuclear tests, because the designer compared 
the onlookers' reaction to an atomic blast. Ludicrous "civil defense" measures 
like backyard fallout shelters and duck-and-cover classroom drills encouraged 
the delusion that a nuclear attack would be no big deal. To this day triple- 
triangle fallout shelter signs rust above the basement entrances of many Amer- 
ican apartment buildings and schools. Many commercial logos from the 1950s 
featured mushroom clouds, including Atomic Fireball Jawbreaker candies, 
the Atomic Market (a mom-and-pop grocery store not far from MIT), and the 
Atomic Cafe, which lent its name to a 1982 documentary on the bizarre non- 
chalance with which the world treated nuclear weapons through the early 
1960s, when horror finally began to sink in. 

Another major change we have lived through is an intolerance of displays of 
force in everyday life. In earlier decades a man's willingness to use his fists in 
response to an insult was the sign of respectability. 52 Today it is the sign of a boor, 
a symptom of impulse control disorder, a ticket to anger management therapy. 

An incident from 1950 illustrates the change. President Harry Truman had 
seen an unkind review in the Washington Post of a performance by his daugh- 
ter, Margaret, an aspiring singer. Truman wrote to the critic on White House 
stationery: "Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a 
new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below." 
Though every writer can sympathize with the impulse, today a public threat 
to commit aggravated assault against a critic would seem buffoonish, indeed 
sinister, if it came from a person in power. But at the time Truman was widely 
admired for his paternal chivalry. 

And if you recognize the expressions "ninety-seven-pound weakling" and 
"get sand kicked in your face," you are probably familiar with the iconic ads 
for the Charles Atlas bodybuilding program, which ran in magazines and 
comic books starting in the 1940s. In the typical storyline, an ectomorph is 
assaulted on the beach in front of his girlfriend. He skulks home, kicks a chair, 
gambles a ten-cent stamp, receives instructions for an exercise program, and 
returns to the beach to wreak revenge on his assailant, restoring his standing 
with the beaming young woman (figure 1-1). 

When it came to the product. Atlas was ahead of his time: the popularity 
of bodybuilding soared in the 1980s. But when it came to marketing, he 

FIGURE i-i. Everyday violence in a bodybuilding ad, 1940s 


belonged to a different era. Today the ads for gyms and exercise parapherna- 
lia don't feature the use of fisticuffs to restore manly honor. The imagery is 
narcissistic, almost homoerotic. Bulging pectorals and rippling abdominals 
are shown in arty close-up for both sexes to admire. The advantage they prom- 
ise is in beauty, not might. 

Even more revolutionary than the scorn for violence between men is the 
scorn for violence against women. Many baby boomers are nostalgic for The 
Honeymooners, a 1950s sitcom featuring Jackie Gleason as a burly bus driver 
whose get-rich-quick schemes are ridiculed by his sensible wife, Alice. In one 
of the show's recurring laugh lines, an enraged Ralph shakes his fist at her 
and bellows, "One of these days, Alice, one of these days . . . POW, right in the 
kisser!" (Or sometimes "Bang, zoom, straight to the moon!") Alice always 
laughs it off, not because she has contempt for a wife-beater but because she 
knows that Ralph is not man enough to do it. Nowadays our sensitivity to 
violence against women makes this kind of comedy in a mainstream televi- 
sion program unthinkable. Or consider the Life magazine ad from 1952 in 
figure 1-2. 

Today this ad's playful, eroticized treatment of domestic violence would 
put it beyond the pale of the printable. It was by no means unique. A wife is 
also spanked in a 1950s ad for Van Heusen shirts, and a 1953 ad for Pitney- 
Bowes postage meters shows an exasperated boss screaming at a stubborn 
secretary with the caption "Is it always illegal to kill a woman?" 53 

If your husband ever finds ouf 

you're not “store-testing’ for fresher coffee.. . 



FIGURE 1-2. Domestic violence in a coffee ad, 1952 


And then there's the longest-running musical, The Fantasticks, with its 
Gilbert-and-Sullivan-like ditty "It Depends on What You Pay" (whose lyrics 
were based on a 1905 translation of Edmond Rostand's play Les Romanesques). 
Two men plot a kidnapping in which the son of one will rescue the daughter 
of the other: 

You can get the rape emphatic. 

You can get the rape polite. 

You can get the rape with Indians: 

A very charming sight. 

You can get the rape on horseback; 

They'll all say it's new and gay. 

So you see the sort of rape 
Depends on what you pay. 

Though the word rape referred to abduction rather than sexual assault, 
between the opening of the play in i960 and the end of its run in 2002 sensi- 
bilities about rape changed. As the librettist Tom Jones (no relation to the Welsh 
singer) explained to me: 

As time went on, I began to feel anxious about the word. Slowly, ever so 
slowly, things began to register on me. Headlines in the papers. Accounts 
of brutal gang rapes. And of "date rapes" too. I began to think: "this isn't 
funny." True, we weren't talking about "real rape," but there is no doubt that 
part of the laughter came from the shock value of using the word in this 
comic manner. 

In the early 1970s, the producer of the play refused Jones's request to rewrite 
the lyrics but allowed him to add an introduction to the song explaining the 
intended meaning of the word and to reduce the number of repetitions of it. 
After the play closed in 2002 Jones rewrote the lyrics from scratch for a 2006 
restaging, and he has legally ensured that only the new version may be per- 
formed in any production of The Fantasticks anywhere in the world. 54 

Until recently, children too were legitimate targets of violence. Parents not 
only spanked their children — a punishment that today has been outlawed in 
many countries — but commonly used a weapon like a hairbrush or paddle, 
or exposed the child's buttocks to increase the pain and humiliation. In a 
sequence that was common in children's stories through the 1950s, a mother 
warned a naughty child, "Wait till your father gets home," whereupon the 
stronger parent would remove his belt and use it to flog the child. Other com- 
monly depicted ways of punishing children with physical pain included send- 
ing them to bed without dinner and washing their mouths out with soap. 
Children who were left to the mercy of unrelated adults were treated even 


more brutally. Within recent memory, many schoolchildren were disciplined 
in ways that today would be classified as "torture" and that would put their 
teachers in jail. 55 

People today think of the world as a uniquely dangerous place. It's hard to 
follow the news without a mounting dread of terrorist attacks, a clash of civ- 
ilizations, and the use of weapons of mass destruction. But we are apt to forget 
the dangers that filled the news a few decades ago, and to be blase about the 
good fortune that so many of them have fizzled out. In later chapters I will 
present numbers that show that the 1960s and 1970s were a vastly more brutal 
and menacing time than the one in which we live. But for now, in keeping with 
the spirit of this chapter, I will make the case impressionistically. 

I graduated from university in 1976. Like most college alumni, I have no 
memory of the commencement speech that sent me into the world of adult- 
hood. This gives me license to invent one today. Imagine the following forecast 
from an expert on the state of the world in the mid-1970s. 

Mr. Principal, members of the faculty, family, friends, and Class of 1976. Now 
is a time of great challenges. But it is also a time of great opportunities. As 
you embark on your lives as educated men and women, I call on you to give 
something back to your community, to work for a brighter future, and to try 
to make the world a better place. 

Now that we have that out of the way, I have something more interesting 
to say to you. I want to share my vision of what the world will be like at the 
time of your thirty-fifth reunion. The calendar will have rolled over into a 
new millennium, bringing you a world that is beyond your imagination. I 
am not referring to the advance of technology, though it will have effects 
you can barely conceive. I am referring to the advance of peace and human 
security, which you will find even harder to conceive. 

To be sure, the world of 2011 will still be a dangerous place. During the 
next thirty-five years there will be wars, as there are today, and there will 
be genocides, as there are today, some of them in places no one would have 
predicted. Nuclear weapons will still be a threat. Some of the violent regions 
of the world will continue to be violent. But superimposed on these constants 
will be unfathomable changes. 

First and foremost, the nightmare that has darkened your lives since your 
early memories of cowering in fallout shelters, a nuclear doomsday in a third 
world war, will come to an end. In a decade the Soviet Union will declare 
peace with the West, and the Cold War will be over without a shot being 
fired. China will also fall off the radar as a military threat; indeed, it will 
become our major trading partner. During the next thirty-five years no 
nuclear weapon will be used against an enemy. In fact, there will be no wars 
between major nations at all. The peace in Western Europe will continue 


indefinitely, and within five years the incessant warring in East Asia will 
give way to a long peace there as well. 

There is more good news. East Germany will open its border, and joyful 
students will sledgehammer the Berlin Wall to smithereens. The Iron Cur- 
tain will vanish, and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe will become 
liberal democracies free of Soviet domination. The Soviet Union will not 
only abandon totalitarian communism but will voluntarily go out of exis- 
tence. The republics that Russia has occupied for decades and centuries will 
become independent states, many of them democratic. In most of the coun- 
tries this will happen with not a drop of blood being spilled. 

Fascism too will vanish from Europe, then from much of the rest of the 
world. Portugal, Spain, and Greece will become liberal democracies. So will 
Taiwan, South Korea, and most of South and Central America. The genera- 
lissimos, the colonels, the juntas, the banana republics, and the annual mil- 
itary coups will depart the stage in most of the developed world. 

The Middle East also has surprises in store. You have just lived through 
the fifth war between Israel and Arab states in twenty-five years. These 
wars have killed fifty thousand people and recently threatened to drag the 
superpowers into a nuclear confrontation. But within three years the presi- 
dent of Egypt will hug the prime minister of Israel in the Knesset, and they 
will sign a peace treaty that will last into the indefinite future. Jordan too 
will make a lasting peace with Israel. Syria will engage in sporadic peace 
talks with Israel, and the two countries will not go to war. 

In South Africa, the apartheid regime will be dismantled, and the white 
minority will cede power to the black majority. This will happen with no 
civil war, no bloodbath, no violent recriminations against the former oppres- 

Many of these developments will be the results of long and courageous 
struggles. But some of them will just happen, catching everyone by surprise. 
Perhaps some of you will try to figure out how it all happened. I congratulate 
you on your accomplishments and wish you success and satisfaction in the 
years ahead. 

How would the audience have reacted to this outburst of optimism? Those 
who were listening would have broken out in snickers and shared a suspicion 
that the speaker was still tripping on the brown acid from Woodstock. Yet in 
every case the optimist would have been right. 

No sightseer can understand a country from a city-a-day tour, and I don't 
expect this skitter across the centuries to have convinced you that the past was 
more violent than the present. Now that you're back home, you are surely filled 
with questions. Don't we still torture people? Wasn't the 20th century the 
bloodiest in history? Haven't new forms of war replaced the old ones? Aren't 


we living in the Age of Terror? Didn't they say that war was obsolete in 1910? 
What about all the chickens in factory farms? And couldn't nuclear terrorists 
start a major war tomorrow? 

These are excellent questions, and I will try to answer them in the rest of 
the book with the help of historical studies and quantitative datasets. But I 
hope that these sanity checks have prepared the ground. They remind us that 
for all the dangers we face today, the dangers of yesterday were even worse. 
Readers of this book (and as we shall see, people in most of the rest of the 
world) no longer have to worry about abduction into sexual slavery, divinely 
commanded genocide, lethal circuses and tournaments, punishment on the 
cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs, decapita- 
tion for not bearing a son, disembowelment for having dated a royal, pistol 
duels to defend their honor, beachside fisticuffs to impress their girlfriends, 
and the prospect of a nuclear world war that would put an end to civilization 
or to human life itself. 


Look, life is nasty, brutish, and short, but you knew that when you became a 

— New Yorker cartoon 1 

T homas Hobbes and Charles Darwin were nice men whose names became 
nasty adjectives. No one wants to live in a world that is Hobbesian or Dar- 
winian (not to mention Malthusian, Machiavellian, or Orwellian). The two 
men were immortalized in the lexicon for their cynical synopses of life in a 
state of nature, Darwin for "survival of the fittest" (a phrase he used but did 
not coin), Hobbes for "the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." 
Yet both men gave us insights about violence that are deeper, subtler, and 
ultimately more humane than their eponymous adjectives imply. Today any 
understanding of human violence must begin with their analyses. 

This chapter is about the origins of violence, in both the logical and the 
chronological sense. With the help of Darwin and Hobbes, we will look at the 
adaptive logic of violence and its predictions for the kinds of violent impulses 
that might have evolved as a part of human nature. We will then turn to the 
prehistory of violence, examining when violence appeared in our evolution- 
ary lineage, how common it was in the millennia before history was written 
down, and what kinds of historical developments first reduced it. 


Darwin gave us a theory of why living things have the traits they have, not 
just their bodily traits but the basic mindsets and motives that drive their 
behavior. A hundred and fifty years after the Origin of Species was published, 
the theory of natural selection has been amply verified in the lab and field, 
and has been augmented with ideas from new fields of science and mathemat- 
ics to yield a coherent understanding of the living world. These fields include 
genetics, which explains the replicators that make natural selection possible. 



and game theory, which illuminates the fates of goal-seeking agents in a world 
that contains other goal-seeking agents . 2 

Why should organisms ever evolve to seek to harm other organisms? The 
answer is not as straightforward as the phrase "survival of the fittest" would 
suggest. In his book The Selfish Gene, which explained the modern synthesis 
of evolutionary biology with genetics and game theory, Richard Dawkins tried 
to pull his readers out of their unreflective familiarity with the living world. 
He asked them to imagine animals as "survival machines" designed by their 
genes (the only entities that are faithfully propagated over the course of evolu- 
tion), and then to consider how those survival machines would evolve. 

To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child 
or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or 
a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can 
be exploited. It differs from a rock or a river in one important respect: it is 
inclined to hit back. This is because it too is a machine that holds its immor- 
tal genes in trust for the future, and it too will stop at nothing to preserve 
them. Natural selection favors genes that control their survival machines in 
such a way that they make the best use of their environment. This includes 
making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same and of 
different species . 3 

Anyone who has ever seen a hawk tear apart a starling, a swarm of biting 
insects torment a horse, or the AIDS virus slowly kill a man has firsthand 
acquaintance with the ways that survival machines callously exploit other 
survival machines. In much of the living world, violence is simply the default, 
something that needs no further explanation. When the victims are members 
of other species, we call the aggressors predators or parasites. But the victims 
can also be members of the same species. Infanticide, siblicide, cannibalism, 
rape, and lethal combat have been documented in many kinds of animals . 4 

Dawkins's carefully worded passage also explains why nature does not 
consist of one big bloody melee. For one thing, animals are less inclined to 
harm their close relatives, because any gene that would nudge an animal to 
harm a relative would have a good chance of harming a copy of itself sitting 
inside that relative, and natural selection would tend to weed it out. More 
important, Dawkins points out that another organism differs from a rock or 
a river because it is inclined to hit back. Any organism that has evolved to be 
violent is a member of a species whose other members, on average, have 
evolved to be just as violent. If you attack one of your own kind, your adver- 
sary may be as strong and pugnacious as you are, and armed with the same 
weapons and defenses. The likelihood that, in attacking a member of your 
own species, you will get hurt is a powerful selection pressure that disfavors 
indiscriminate pouncing or lashing out. It also rules out the hydraulic 


metaphor and most folk theories of violence, such as a thirst for blood, a death 
wish, a killer instinct, and other destructive itches, urges, and impulses. When 
a tendency toward violence evolves, it is always strategic. Organisms are 
selected to deploy violence only in circumstances where the expected benefits 
outweigh the expected costs. That discernment is especially true of intelligent 
species, whose large brains make them sensitive to the expected benefits and 
costs in a particular situation, rather than just to the odds averaged over evo- 
lutionary time. 

The logic of violence as it applies to members of an intelligent species fac- 
ing other members of that species brings us to Hobbes. In a remarkable passage 
in Leviathan (1651), he used fewer than a hundred words to lay out an analysis 
of the incentives for violence that is as good as any today: 

So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, 
competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade 
for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use 
violence, to make themselves masters of other men's persons, wives, chil- 
dren, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, 
a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct 
in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, 
their profession, or their name. 5 

Hobbes considered competition to be an unavoidable consequence of 
agents' pursuing their interests. Today we see that it is built into the evolution- 
ary process. Survival machines that can elbow their competitors away from 
finite resources like food, water, and desirable territory will out-reproduce 
those competitors, leaving the world with the survival machines that are best 
suited for such competition. 

We also know today why "wives" would be one of the resources over which 
men should compete. In most animal species, the female makes a greater invest- 
ment in offspring than the male. This is especially true of mammals, where the 
mother gestates her offspring inside her body and nurses them after they are 
born. A male can multiply the number of his offspring by mating with several 
females — which will leave other males childless — while a female cannot mul- 
tiply the number of her offspring by mating with several males. This makes 
female reproductive capacity a scarce resource over which the males of many 
species, including humans, compete. 6 None of this, by the way, implies that men 
are robots controlled by their genes, that they may be morally excused for rap- 
ing or fighting, that women are passive sexual prizes, that people try to have as 
many babies as possible, or that people are impervious to influences from their 
culture, to take some of the common misunderstandings of the theory of sexual 
selection. 7 

The second cause of quarrel is diffidence, a word that in Hobbes's time 


meant "fear" rather than "shyness." The second cause is a consequence of the 
first: competition breeds fear. If you have reason to suspect that your neighbor 
is inclined to eliminate you from the competition by, say, killing you, then you 
will be inclined to protect yourself by eliminating him first in a preemptive 
strike. You might have this temptation even if you otherwise wouldn't hurt a 
fly, as long as you are not willing to lie down and be killed. The tragedy is that 
your competitor has every reason to crank through the same calculation, even 
if he is the kind of person who wouldn't hurt a fly. In fact, even if he knew that 
you started out with no aggressive designs on him, he might legitimately worry 
that you are tempted to neutralize him out of fear that he will neutralize you 
first, which gives you an incentive to neutralize him before that, ad infinitum. 
The political scientist Thomas Schelling offers the analogy of an armed home- 
owner who surprises an armed burglar, each being tempted to shoot the other 
to avoid being shot first. This paradox is sometimes called the Hobbesian trap 
or, in the arena of international relations, the security dilemma. 8 

How can intelligent agents extricate themselves from a Hobbesian trap? 
The most obvious way is through a policy of deterrence: Don't strike first; be 
strong enough to survive a first strike; and retaliate against any aggressor in 
kind. A credible deterrence policy can remove a competitor's incentive to 
invade for gain, since the cost imposed on him by retaliation would cancel out 
the anticipated spoils. And it removes his incentive to invade from fear, 
because of your commitment not to strike first and, more importantly, because 
of your reduced incentive to strike first, since deterrence reduces the need for 
preemption. The key to the deterrence policy, though, is the credibility of the 
threat that you will retaliate. If your adversary thinks that you're vulnerable 
to being wiped out in a first strike, he has no reason to fear retaliation. And if 
he thinks that once attacked you may rationally hold back from retaliation, 
because at that point it's too late to do any good, he might exploit that rational- 
ity and attack you with impunity. Only if you are committed to disprove any 
suspicion of weakness, to avenge all trespasses and settle all scores, will your 
policy of deterrence be credible. Thus we have an explanation of the incentive 
to invade for trifles: a word, a smile, and any other sign of undervalue. Hobbes 
called it "glory"; more commonly it is called "honor"; the most accurate descrip- 
tor is "credibility." 

The policy of deterrence is also known as the balance of terror and, during 
the Cold War, was called mutual assured destruction (MAD). Whatever peace 
a policy of deterrence may promise is fragile, because deterrence reduces vio- 
lence only by a threat of violence. Each side must react to any nonviolent sign 
of disrespect with a violent demonstration of mettle, whereupon one act of 
violence can lead to another in an endless cycle of retaliation. As we shall see 
in chapter 8, a major design feature in human nature, self-serving biases, can 
make each side believe that its own violence was an act of justified retaliation 
while the other's was an act of unprovoked aggression. 


Hobbes's analysis pertains to life in a state of anarchy. The title of his mas- 
terwork identified a way to escape it: the Leviathan, a monarchy or other 
government authority that embodies the will of the people and has a monop- 
oly on the use of force. By inflicting penalties on aggressors, the Leviathan 
can eliminate their incentive for aggression, in turn defusing general anxi- 
eties about preemptive attack and obviating everyone's need to maintain a 
hair trigger for retaliation to prove their resolve. And because the Leviathan 
is a disinterested third party, it is not biased by the chauvinism that makes 
each side think its opponent has a heart of darkness while it is as pure as the 
driven snow. 

The logic of the Leviathan can be summed up in a triangle (figure 2-1). In 
every act of violence, there are three interested parties: the aggressor, the vic- 
tim, and a bystander. Each has a motive for violence: the aggressor to prey 
upon the victim, the victim to retaliate, the bystander to minimize collateral 
damage from their fight. Violence between the combatants may be called war; 
violence by the bystander against the combatants may be called law. The Levi- 
athan theory, in a nutshell, is that law is better than war. Hobbes's theory 
makes a testable prediction about the history of violence. The Leviathan made 
its first appearance in a late act in the human pageant. Archaeologists tell us 
that humans lived in a state of anarchy until the emergence of civilization 
some five thousand years ago, when sedentary farmers first coalesced into 
cities and states and developed the first governments. If Hobbes's theory is 
right, this transition should also have ushered in the first major historical 
decline in violence. Before the advent of civilization, when men lived without 
"a common power to keep them all in awe," their lives should have been nas- 
tier, more brutish, and shorter than when peace was imposed on them by 
armed authorities, a development I will call the Pacification Process. Hobbes 
claimed that "savage people in many places in America" lived in a state of 
violent anarchy, but he gave no specifics as to whom he had in mind. 

In this data vacuum, anyone could have a go at speculating about primitive 
people, and it did not take long for a contrary theory to turn up. Hobbes's 
opposite number was the Swiss-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau 


A gg ressor « Victim 



FIGURE 2-i. The violence triangle 


(1712-78), who opined that "nothing can be more gentle than [man] in his 
primitive state. . . . The example of the savages . . . seems to confirm that man- 
kind was formed ever to remain in it, . . . and that all ulterior improvements 
have been so many steps . . . towards the decrepitness of the species." 9 

Though the philosophies of Hobbes and Rousseau were far more sophisti- 
cated than "nasty brutish and short" versus "the noble savage," their compet- 
ing stereotypes of life in a state of nature fueled a controversy that remains 
with us today. In The Blank Slate, I discussed how the issue has accumulated 
a heavy burden of emotional, moral, and political baggage. In the second half 
of the 20th century, Rousseau's romantic theory became the politically correct 
doctrine of human nature, both in reaction to earlier, racist doctrines about 
"primitive" people and out of a conviction that it was a more uplifting view 
of the human condition. Many anthropologists believe that if Hobbes was 
right, war would be inevitable or even desirable; therefore anyone who favors 
peace must insist that Hobbes was wrong. These "anthropologists of peace" 
(who in fact are rather aggressive academics — the ethologist Johan van der 
Dennen calls them the Peace and Harmony Mafia) have maintained that 
humans and other animals are strongly inhibited from killing their own kind, 
that war is a recent invention, and that fighting among native peoples was 
ritualistic and harmless until they encountered European colonists. 10 

As I mentioned in the preface, I think the idea that biological theories of 
violence are fatalistic and romantic theories optimistic gets everything back- 
wards, but that isn't the point of this chapter. When it came to violence in pre- 
state peoples, Hobbes and Rousseau were talking through their hats: neither 
knew a thing about life before civilization. Today we can do better. This chap- 
ter reviews the facts about violence in the earliest stages of the human career. 
The story begins before we were human, and we will look at aggression in our 
primate cousins to see what it reveals about the emergence of violence in our 
evolutionary lineage. When we reach our own species, I will zero in on the 
contrast between foraging bands and tribes who live in a state of anarchy and 
peoples who live in settled states with some form of governance. We will also 
look at how foragers fight and what they fight over. This leads to the pivotal 
question: Is the warring of anarchic tribes more or less destructive than that of 
people living in settled states? The answer requires a switch from narratives 
to numbers: the per capita rates of violent death, to the best we can estimate 
them, in societies that live under a Leviathan and in those that live in anarchy. 
Finally we will take a look at the upsides and downsides of civilized life. 


How far back can we trace the history of violence? Though the primate ancestors 
of the human lineage have long been extinct, they left us with at least one kind of 
evidence about what they might have been like: their other descendants. 


chimpanzees. We did not, of course, evolve from chimps, and as we shall see it's 
an open question whether chimpanzees preserved the traits of our common 
ancestor or veered off in a uniquely chimp direction. But either way, chimpanzee 
aggression holds a lesson for us, because it shows how violence can evolve in a 
primate species with certain traits we share. And it tests the evolutionary predic- 
tion that violent tendencies are not hydraulic but strategic, deployed only in cir- 
cumstances in which the potential gains are high and the risks are low. 11 

Common chimpanzees live in communities of up to 150 individuals who 
occupy a distinct territory. As chimpanzees forage for the fruit and nuts that 
are unevenly distributed through the forest, they frequently split and coalesce 
into smaller groups ranging in size from one to fifteen. If one group encounters 
another group from a different community at the border between their ter- 
ritories, the interaction is always hostile. When the groups are evenly matched, 
they dispute the boundary in a noisy battle. The two sides bark, hoot, shake 
branches, throw objects, and charge at each other for half an hour or more, 
until one side, usually the smaller one, skulks away. 

These battles are examples of the aggressive displays that are common 
among animals. Once thought to be rituals that settle disputes without blood- 
shed for the good of the species, they are now understood as displays of 
strength and resolve that allow the weaker side to concede when the outcome 
of a fight is a foregone conclusion and going through with it would only risk 
injury to both. When two animals are evenly matched, the show of force may 
escalate to serious fighting, and one or both can get injured or killed. 12 Battles 
between groups of chimpanzees, however, do not escalate into serious fighting, 
and anthropologists once believed that the species was essentially peaceful. 

Jane Goodall, the primatologist who first observed chimpanzees in the 
wild for extended periods of time, eventually made a shocking discovery. 13 
When a group of male chimpanzees encounters a smaller group or a solitary 
individual from another community, they don't hoot and bristle, but take 
advantage of their numbers. If the stranger is a sexually receptive adolescent 
female, they may groom her and try to mate. If she is carrying an infant, they 
will often attack her and kill and eat the baby. And if they encounter a solitary 
male, or isolate one from a small group, they will go after him with murder- 
ous savagery. Two attackers will hold down the victim, and the others will 
beat him, bite off his toes and genitals, tear flesh from his body, twist his limbs, 
drink his blood, or rip out his trachea. In one community, the chimpanzees 
picked off every male in a neighboring one, an event that if it occurred among 
humans we would call genocide. Many of the attacks aren't triggered by 
chance encounters but are the outcome of border patrols in which a group of 
males quietly seek out and target any solitary male they spot. Killings can also 
occur within a community. A gang of males may kill a rival, and a strong 
female, aided by a male or another female, may kill a weaker one's offspring. 

When Goodall first wrote about these killings, other scientists wondered 


whether they might be freak outbursts, symptoms of pathology, or artifacts of 
the primatologists' provisioning the chimps with food to make them easier to 
observe. Three decades later little doubt remains that lethal aggression is a part 
of chimpanzees' normal behavioral repertoire. Primatologists have observed or 
inferred the killings of almost fifty individuals in attacks between communities, 
and more than twenty-five in attacks within them. The reports have come from 
at least nine communities, including ones that have never been provisioned. In 
some communities, more than a third of the males die from violence . 14 

Does chimpicide have a Darwinian rationale? The primatologist Richard 
Wrangham, a former student of Goodall's, has tested various hypotheses with 
the extensive data that have been amassed on the demography and ecology 
of chimpanzees . 15 He was able to document one large Darwinian advantage 
and one smaller one. When chimpanzees eliminate rival males and their off- 
spring, they expand their territory, either by moving into it immediately or by 
winning subsequent battles with the help of their enhanced numerical advan- 
tage. This allows them to monopolize access to the territory's food for them- 
selves, their offspring, and the females they mate with, which in turn results 
in a greater rate of births among the females. The community will also some- 
times absorb the females of the vanquished community, bringing the males 
a second reproductive advantage. It's not that the chimps fight directly over 
food or females. All they care about is dominating their territory and elimi- 
nating rivals if they can do so at minimal risk to themselves. The evolutionary 
benefits happen indirectly and over the long run. 

As for the risks, the chimpanzees minimize them by picking unfair fights, 
those in which they outnumber their victim by at least three to one. The forag- 
ing pattern of chimpanzees often delivers an unlucky victim into their clutches 
because fruiting trees are distributed patchily in the forest. Hungry chimps 
may have to forage in small groups or on their own and may sometimes ven- 
ture into no-chimp's-land in pursuit of their dinner. 

What does this have to do with violence in humans? It raises the possibility 
that the human lineage has been engaged in lethal raiding since the time of its 
common root with chimpanzees around six million years ago. There is, how- 
ever, an alternative possibility. The shared ancestor of humans and common 
chimpanzees ( Pan troglodytes) bequeathed the world a third species, bonobos 
or pygmy chimps ( Pan paniscus), which split from their common cousins around 
two million years ago. We are as closely related to bonobos as we are to com- 
mon chimps, and bonobos never engage in lethal raiding. Indeed, the difference 
between bonobos and common chimpanzees is one of the best-known facts in 
popular primatoiogy. Bonobos have become famous as the peaceable, matri- 
archal, concupiscent, herbivorous "hippie chimps." They are the namesake of 
a vegetarian restaurant in New York, the inspiration for the sexologist Dr. Suzy's 
"Bonobo Way of Peace Through Pleasure," and if the Nezv York Times columnist 
Maureen Dowd had her way, a role model for men today . 16 


The primatologist Frans de Waal points out that in theory the common 
ancestor of humans, common chimpanzees, and bonobos could have been 
similar to bonobos rather than to common chimps . 17 If so, violence between 
coalitions of males would have shallower roots in human evolutionary history. 
Common chimpanzees and humans would have developed their lethal raid- 
ing independently, and human raiding may have developed historically in 
particular cultures rather than evolutionarily in the species. If so, humans 
would have no innate proclivities toward coalitional violence and would not 
need a Leviathan, or any other institution, to keep them away from it. 

The idea that humans evolved from a peaceful, bonobolike ancestor has two 
problems. One is that it is easy to get carried away with the hippie-chimp story. 
Bonobos are an endangered species that lives in inaccessible forests in danger- 
ous parts of the Congo, and much of what we know about them comes from 
observations of small groups of well-fed juveniles or young adults in captivity. 
Many primatologists suspect that systematic studies of older, hungrier, more 
populous, and freer groups of bonobos would paint a darker picture . 18 Bonobos 
in the wild, it turns out, engage in hunting, confront each other belligerently, 
and injure one another in fights, perhaps sometimes fatally. So while bonobos 
are unquestionably less aggressive than common chimpanzees — they never 
raid one another, and communities can mingle peacefully — they are certainly 
not peaceful across the board. 

The second and more important problem is that the common ancestor of 
the two chimpanzee species and humans is far more likely to have been like 
a common chimpanzee than like a bonobo . 19 Bonobos are very strange pri- 
mates, not just in their behavior but in their anatomy. Their small, childlike 
heads, lighter bodies, reduced sex differences, and other juvenile traits make 
them different not only from common chimpanzees but from the other great 
apes (gorillas and orangutans) and different as well from fossil australopith- 
ecines, who were ancestral to humans. Their distinctive anatomy, when placed 
on the great ape family tree, suggests that bonobos were pulled away from 
the generic ape plan by neoteny, a process that retunes an animal's growth 
program to preserve certain juvenile features in adulthood (in the case of 
bonobos, features of the cranium and brain). Neoteny often occurs in species 
that have undergone domestication, as when dogs diverged from wolves, and 
it is a pathway by which selection can make animals less aggressive. Wrang- 
ham argues that the primary mover in bonobo evolution was selection for 
reduced aggression in males, perhaps because bonobos forage in large groups 
without vulnerable loners, so there are no opportunities for coalitional aggres- 
sion to pay off. These considerations suggest that bonobos are the odd-ape-out, 
and we are descended from an animal that was closer to common chimpan- 

Even if common chimps and humans discovered coalitional violence inde- 
pendently, the coincidence would be informative. It would suggest that lethal 


raiding can be evolutionarily advantageous in an intelligent species that fis- 
sions into groups of various sizes, and in which related males form coalitions 
and can assess each other's relative strength. When we look at violence in 
humans later in the chapter, we will see that some of the parallels are a bit 
close for comfort. 

It would be nice if the gap between the common ancestor and modern 
humans could be filled in by the fossil record. But chimpanzees' ancestors 
have left no fossils, and hominid fossils and artifacts are too scarce to provide 
direct evidence of aggression, such as preserved weapons or wounds. Some 
paleoanthropologists test for signs of a violent temperament in fossil species 
by measuring the size of the canine teeth in males (since daggerlike canines 
are found in aggressive species) and by looking for differences in the size of 
the males and the females (since males tend to be larger in polygynous spe- 
cies, the better to fight with other males). 20 Unfortunately the small jaws of 
hominids, unlike the muzzles of other primates, don't open wide enough for 
large canines to be practical, regardless of how aggressive or peaceful these 
creatures were. And unless a species was considerate enough to have left 
behind a large number of complete skeletons, it's hard to sex them reliably 
and compare the size of the males and the females. (For these reasons many 
anthropologists are skeptical of the recent claim that Ardipithecus ramidus, a 
4.4-million-year-old species that is probably ancestral to Homo, was unisex and 
small-canined and hence monogamous and peaceable.) 21 The more recent and 
abundant Homo fossils show that the males have been larger than the females 
for at least two million years, by at least as great a ratio as in modern humans. 
This reinforces the suspicion that violent competition among men has a long 
history in our evolutionary lineage. 22 


The species we belong to, "anatomically modern Homo sapiens," is said to be 
200,000 years old. But "behaviorally modern" humans, with art, ritual, cloth- 
ing, complex tools, and the ability to live in different ecosystems, probably 
evolved closer to 75,000 years ago in Africa before setting out to people the 
rest of the world. When the species emerged, people lived in small, nomadic, 
egalitarian bands of kinsmen, subsisted by hunting and gathering, and had 
no written language or government. Today the vast majority of humans are 
settled in stratified societies numbering in the millions, eat foods cultivated 
by agriculture, and are governed by states. The transition, sometimes called 
the Neolithic (new stone age) Revolution, began around 10,000 years ago with 
the emergence of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, China, India, West Africa, 
Mesoamerica, and the Andes. 23 

It's tempting, then, to use the 10,000-year horizon as a boundary between 
two major eras of human existence: a hunter-gatherer era, in which we did 


most of our biological evolving and which may still be glimpsed in extant 
hunter-gatherers, and the era of civilization thereafter. That is the dividing 
line that figures in theories of the ecological niche to which humans are bio- 
logically adapted, which evolutionary psychologists call “the environment of 
evolutionary adaptedness." But that is not the cut that is most relevant to the 
Leviathan hypothesis. 

For one thing, the 10,000-year milestone applies only to the first societies 
that farmed. Agriculture developed in other parts of the world later and spread 
outward from those cradles only gradually. Ireland, for example, was not 
lapped by the wave of farming that emanated from the Near East until around 
6,000 years ago. 24 Many parts of the Americas, Australia, Asia, and Africa were 
populated by hunter-gatherers until a few centuries ago, and of course a few 
still are. 

Also, societies cannot be dichotomized into hunter-gatherer bands and 
agricultural civilizations. 25 The nonstate peoples we are most familiar with 
are the hunters and gatherers living in small bands like the !Kung San of the 
Kalahari Desert and the Inuit of the Arctic. But these people have survived as 
hunter-gatherers only because they inhabit remote parts of the globe that no 
one else wants. As such they are not a representative sample of our anarchic 
ancestors, who may have enjoyed flusher environments. Until recently other 
foragers parked themselves in valleys and rivers that were teeming with fish 
and game and that supported a more affluent, complex, and sedentary lifestyle. 
The Indians of the Pacific Northwest, known for their totem poles and pot- 
latches, are a familiar example. Also beyond the reach of states are hunter- 
horticulturalists, such as peoples in Amazonia and New Guinea who 
supplement their hunting and gathering by slashing and burning patches of 
forest and growing bananas or sweet potatoes in small gardens. Their lives 
are not as austere as those of pure hunter-gatherers, but they are far closer to 
them than they are to sedentary, full-time farmers. 

When the first farmers settled down to grow grains and legumes and keep 
domesticated animals, their numbers exploded and they began to divide their 
labors, so that some of them lived off the food grown by others. But they didn't 
develop complex states and governments right away. They first coalesced into 
tribes connected by kinship and culture, and the tribes sometimes merged 
into chiefdoms, which had a centralized leader and a permanent entourage 
supporting him. Some of the tribes took up pastoralism, wandering with their 
livestock and trading animal products with sedentary farmers. The Israelites 
of the Hebrew Bible were tribal pastoralists who developed into chiefdoms 
around the time of the judges. 

It took around five thousand years after the origin of agriculture for true 
states to appear on the scene. 26 That happened when the more powerful chief- 
doms used their armed retinues to bring other chiefdoms and tribes under 
their control, further centralizing their power and supporting niches for 


specialized classes of artisans and soldiers. The emerging states built strong- 
holds, cities, and other defensible settlements, and they developed writing 
systems that allowed them to keep records, exact taxes and tributes from their 
subjects, and codify laws to keep them in line. Petty states with designs on 
their neighbors' assets sometimes forced them to become states in defense, 
and bigger states often swallowed smaller states. 

Anthropologists have proposed many subtypes and intermediate cases 
among these kinds of societies, and have noted that there is no cultural esca- 
lator that inevitably turns simpler societies into more complex ones. Tribes 
and chiefdoms can maintain their ways indefinitely, such as the Montenegrin 
tribes in Europe that lasted into the 20th century. And when a state breaks 
down, it can be taken over by tribes, as in the Greek dark ages (which followed 
the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization and in which the Homeric epics 
were set) and the European dark ages (which came after the fall of the Roman 
Empire). Even today, many parts of failed states, such as Somalia, Sudan, 
Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are essentially chief- 
doms; we call the chiefs warlords . 27 

For all these reasons, it makes no sense to test for historical changes in vio- 
lence by plotting deaths against a time line from the calendar. If we discover 
that violence has declined in a given people, it is because their mode of social 
organization has changed, not because the historical clock has struck a certain 
hour, and that change can happen at different times, if it happens at all. Nor 
should we expect a smooth reduction in violence along the continuum from 
simple, nomadic hunter-gatherers to complex, sedentary hunter-gatherers to 
farming tribes and chiefdoms to petty states to large states. The major transi- 
tion we should expect is at the appearance of the first form of social organiza- 
tion that shows signs of design for reducing violence within its borders. That 
would be the centralized state, the Leviathan. 

It's not that any early state was (as Hobbes theorized) a commonwealth 
vested with power by a social contract that had been negotiated by its citizens. 
Early states were more like protection rackets, in which powerful Mafiosi 
extorted resources from the locals and offered them safety from hostile neigh- 
bors and from each other . 28 Any ensuing reduction in violence benefited the 
overlords as much as the protectees. Just as a farmer tries to prevent his ani- 
mals from killing one another, so a ruler will try to keep his subjects from 
cycles of raiding and feuding that just shuffle resources or settle scores among 
them but from his point of view are a dead loss. 

The topic of violence in nonstate societies has a long and politicized history. 
For centuries it was conventional wisdom that native peoples were ferocious 
barbarians. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, complained that 
the king of England "endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers. 


the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistin- 
guished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." 

Today the passage seems archaic, indeed offensive. Dictionaries warn against 
using the word salvage (related to sylvan, "of the forest") to refer to native peoples, 
and our awareness of the genocides of Native Americans perpetrated by Euro- 
pean colonists makes the signatories seem like a black pot in a glass house cast- 
ing the first stone. A modern concern with the dignity and rights of all peoples 
inhibits us from speaking too frankly about rates of violence in preliterate peo- 
ples, and the "anthropologists of peace" have worked to give them a Rous- 
seauian image makeover. Margaret Mead, for example, described the Chambri 
of New Guinea as a sex-reversed culture because the men were adorned with 
makeup and curls, omitting the fact that they had to earn the right to these sup- 
posedly effeminate decorations by killing a member of an enemy tribe.’ 4 Anthro- 
pologists who did not get with the program found themselves barred from the 
territories in which they had worked, denounced in manifestoes by their profes- 
sional societies, slapped with libel lawsuits, and even accused of genocide. 30 

To be sure, it is easy to come away from tribal battles with the impression 
that they are fairly harmless in comparison with modern warfare. Men with a 
grievance against a neighboring village challenge its men to appear at a given 
time and place. The two sides face off at a distance at which their missiles can 
barely reach each other. They talk trash, cursing and insulting and boasting, and 
fire arrows or chuck spears while dodging those from the other side. When a 
warrior or two are injured or killed, they call it a day. These noisy spectacles led 
observers to conclude that warfare among primitive peoples was ritualistic and 
symbolic, very different from the glorious carnage of more advanced peoples. 31 
The historian William Eckhardt, who is often cited for his claim that violence 
has vastly increased over the course of history, wrote, "Bands of gathering- 
hunters, numbering about 25 to 50 people each, could hardly have made much 
of a war. There would not have been enough people to fight, few weapons with 
which to fight, little to fight about, and no surplus to pay for the fighting." 32 

Only in the past fifteen years have scholars with no political ax to grind, 
such as Lawrence Keeley, Steven LeBlanc, Azar Gat, and Johan van der Den- 
nen, begun to compile systematic reviews of the frequency and damage of 
fighting in large samples of nonstate peoples. 33 The actual death counts from 
primitive warfare show that the apparent harmlessness of a single battle is 
deceptive. For one thing, a skirmish may escalate into all-out combat that 
leaves the battlefield strewn with bodies. Also, when bands of a few dozen 
men confront each other on a regular basis, even one or two deaths per battle 
can add up to a rate of casualties that is high by any standard. 

But the main distortion comes from a failure to distinguish the two kinds 
of violence that turned out to be so important in studies of chimpanzees: 
battles and raids. It is the sneaky raids, not the noisy battles, that kill in large 


numbers. 34 A party of men will slink into an enemy village before dawn, fire 
arrows into the first men who emerge from their huts in the morning to pee, 
and then shoot the others as they rush out of their huts to see what the com- 
motion is about. They may thrust their spears through walls, shoot arrows 
through doorways or chimneys, and set the huts on fire. They can kill a lot of 
drowsy people before the villagers organize themselves in defense, by which 
time the attackers have melted back into the forest. 

Sometimes enough attackers show up to massacre every last member of 
the village, or to kill all the men and abduct the women. Another stealthy but 
effective way to decimate an enemy is by ambuscade: a war party can hide in 
the forest along a hunting route and dispatch enemy men as they walk by. Still 
another tactic is treachery: the men can pretend to make peace with an enemy, 
invite them to a feast, and at a prearranged signal stab the unsuspecting guests. 
As for any solitary man who blunders into their territory, the policy is the 
same as it is with chimpanzees: shoot on sight. 

Men in nonstate societies (and they are almost always men) are deadly seri- 
ous about war, not just in their tactics but in their armaments, which include 
chemical, biological, and antipersonnel weapons. 35 Arrowheads may be coated 
with toxins extracted from venomous animals, or with putrefied tissue that 
causes the wound to fester. The arrowhead may be designed to break away 
from its shaft, making it difficult for the victim to pull it out. Warriors often 
reward themselves with trophies, especially heads, scalps, and genitals. They 
literally take no prisoners, though occasionally they will drag one back to the 
village to be tortured to death. William Bradford of the Mayflower pilgrims 
observed of the natives of Massachusetts, "Not being content only to kill and 
take away life, [they] delight to torment men in the most bloody manner that 
may be, flaying some alive with the shells of fishes, cutting off members and 
joints of others by piecemeal and broiling on the coals, eat collops of their flesh 
in their sight while they live." 36 

Though we bristle when we read of European colonists calling native peo- 
ple savages, and justly fault them for their hypocrisy and racism, it's not as if 
they were making the atrocities up. Many eyewitnesses have brought back 
tales of horrific violence in tribal warfare. Helena Valero, a woman who had 
been abducted by the Yanomamo in the Venezuelan rain forest in the 1930s, 
recounted one of their raids: 

Meanwhile from all sides the women continued to arrive with their children, 
whom the other Karawetari had captured. . . . Then the men began to kill 
the children; little ones, bigger ones, they killed many of them. They tried 
to run away, but they caught them, and threw them on the ground, and stuck 
them with bows, which went through their bodies and rooted them to the 
ground. Taking the smallest by the feet, they beat them against the trees and 
rocks. . . . All the women wept. 37 


In the early 19th century an English convict named William Buckley 
escaped from a penal colony in Australia and for three decades lived happily 
with the Wathaurung aborigines. He provided firsthand accounts of their way 
of life, including their ways of war: 

On approaching the enemy's quarters, they laid themselves down in ambush 
until all was quiet, and finding most of them asleep, laying about in groups, 
our party rushed upon them, killing three on the spot and wounding several 
others. The enemy fled precipitately, leaving their war implements in the 
hands of their assailants and their wounded to be beaten to death by boo- 
merangs, three loud shouts closing the victors' triumph. The bodies of the 
dead they mutilated in a shocking manner, cutting the arms and legs off, 
with flints, and shells, and tomahawks. 

When the women saw them returning, they also raised great shouts, 
dancing about in savage ecstasy. The bodies were thrown upon the ground, 
and beaten about with sticks — in fact, they all seemed to be perfectly mad 
with excitement. 38 

It was not just Europeans gone native who recounted such episodes but 
the natives themselves. Robert Nasruk Cleveland, an Inupiaq Inuit, provided 
this reminiscence in 1965: 

The next morning the raiders attacked the camp and killed all the women 
and children remaining there. . . . After shoving sheefish into the vaginas 
of all the Indian women they had killed, the Noatakers took Kititigaagvaat 
and her baby, and retreated toward the upper Noatak River. . . . Finally, when 
they had almost reached home, the Noatakers gang-raped Kititigaagvaat 
and left her with her baby to die. . . . 

Some weeks later, the Kobuk caribou hunters returned home to find the 
rotting remains of their wives and children and vowed revenge. A year or 
two after that, they headed north to the upper Noatak to seek it. They soon 
located a large body of Nuataagmiut and secretly followed them. One morn- 
ing the men in the Nuataagmiut camp spotted a large band of caribou and 
went off in pursuit. While they were gone, the Kobuk raiders killed every 
woman in the camp. Then they cut off their vulvas, strung them on a line, 
and headed quickly toward home. 39 

Cannibalism has long been treated as the quintessence of primitive sav- 
agery, and in reaction many anthropologists used to dismiss reports of can- 
nibalism as blood libels by neighboring tribes. But forensic archaeology has 
recently shown that cannibalism was widespread in human prehistory. The 
evidence includes human bones that bear human teethmarks or that had been 
cracked and cooked like those of animals and thrown out in the kitchen trash. 40 


Some of the butchered bones date back 800,000 years, to the time when Homo 
heidelbergensis, a common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals, first 
appears on the evolutionary stage. Traces of human blood proteins have also 
been found in cooking pots and in ancient human excrement. Cannibalism 
may have been so common in prehistory as to have affected our evolution: our 
genomes contain genes that appear to be defenses against the prion diseases 
transmitted by cannibalism. 41 All this is consistent with eyewitness accounts, 
such as this transcription by a missionary of a Maori warrior taunting the 
preserved head of an enemy chief: 

You wanted to run away, did you? But my war club overtook you. And after 
you were cooked, you made food for my mouth. And where is your father? 

He is cooked. And where is your brother? He is eaten. And where is your 
wife? There she sits, a wife for me. And where are your children? There they 
are, with loads on their backs, carrying food, as my slaves. 42 

Many scholars have found the image of harmless foragers to be plausible 
because they had trouble imagining the means and motives that could drive 
them to war. Recall, for example, Eckhardt's claim that hunter-gatherers had 
"little to fight about." But organisms that have evolved by natural selection 
always have something to fight about (which doesn't, of course, mean that they 
will always fight). Hobbes noted that humans in particular have three reasons 
for quarrel: gain, safety, and credible deterrence. People in nonstate societies 
fight about all three. 43 

Foraging peoples can invade to gain territory, such as hunting grounds, 
watering holes, the banks or mouths of rivers, and sources of valued minerals 
like flint, obsidian, salt, or ochre. They may raid livestock or caches of stored 
food. And very often they fight over women. Men may raid a neighboring 
village for the express purpose of kidnapping women, whom they gang-rape 
and distribute as wives. They may raid for some other reason and take the 
women as a bonus. Or they may raid to claim women who had been promised 
to them in marriage but were not delivered at the agreed-upon time. And 
sometimes young men attack for trophies, coups, and other signs of aggressive 
prowess, especially in societies where they are a prerequisite to attaining adult 

People in nonstate societies also invade for safety. The security dilemma 
or Hobbesian trap is very much on their minds, and they may form an alliance 
with nearby villages if they fear they are too small, or launch a preemptive 
strike if they fear that an enemy alliance is getting too big. One Yanomamo 
man in Amazonia told an anthropologist, "We are tired of fighting. We don't 
want to kill anymore. But the others are treacherous and cannot be trusted." 44 

But in most surveys the most commonly cited motive for warfare is ven- 
geance, which serves as a crude deterrent to potential enemies by raising the 


anticipated long-term costs of an attack. In the Iliad, Achilles describes a feature 
of human psychology that can be found in cultures throughout the world: 
revenge "far sweeter than flowing honey wells up like smoke in the breasts of 
man." Foraging and tribal people avenge theft, adultery, vandalism, poaching, 
abduction of women, soured deals, alleged sorcery, and previous acts of violence. 
One cross-cultural survey found that in 95 percent of societies, people explicitly 
endorse the idea of taking a life for a life. 45 Tribal people not only feel the smoke 
welling up in their breasts but know that their enemies feel it too. That is why 
they sometimes massacre every last member of a village they raid: they antici- 
pate that any survivors would seek revenge for their slain kinsmen. 


Though descriptions of violence in nonstate societies demolish the stereotype 
that foraging peoples are inherently peaceful, they don't tell us whether the 
level of violence is higher or lower than in so-called civilized societies. The 
annals of modern states have no shortage of gruesome massacres and atroci- 
ties, not least against native peoples of every continent, and their wars have 
death tolls that reach eight digits. Only by looking at numbers can we get a 
sense as to whether civilization has increased violence or decreased it. 

In absolute numbers, of course, civilized societies are matchless in the 
destruction they have wreaked. But should we look at absolute numbers, or 
at relative numbers, calculated as a proportion of the populations? The choice 
confronts us with the moral imponderable of whether it is worse for 50 percent 
of a population of one hundred to be killed or 1 percent of a population of one 
billion. In one frame of mind, one could say that a person who is tortured or 
killed suffers to the same degree regardless of how many other people meet 
such a fate, so it is the sum of these sufferings that should engage our sympa- 
thy and our analytic attention. But in another frame of mind, one could reason 
that part of the bargain of being alive is that one takes a chance at dying a 
premature or painful death, be it from violence, accident, or disease. So the 
number of people in a given time and place who enjoy full lives has to be 
counted as a moral good, against which we calibrate the moral bad of the 
number who are victims of violence. Another way of expressing this frame of 
mind is to ask, "If I were one of the people who were alive in a particular era, 
what would be the chances that I would be a victim of violence?" The reason- 
ing in this second frame of mind, whether it appeals to the proportion of a 
population or the risk to an individual, ends in the conclusion that in compar- 
ing the harmfulness of violence across societies, we should focus on the rate, 
rather than the number, of violent acts. 

What happens, then, when we use the emergence of states as the dividing 
line and put hunter-gatherers, hunter-horticulturalists, and other tribal 
peoples (from any era) on one side, and settled states (also from any era) on 


the other? Several scholars have recently scoured the anthropological and 
historical literature for every good body count from nonstate societies that 
they could find. Two kinds of estimates are available. One comes from eth- 
nographers who record demographic data, including deaths, in the people 
they study over long stretches of time. 46 The other comes from forensic archae- 
ologists, who sift through burial sites or museum collections with an eye for 
signs of foul play. 47 

How can one establish the cause of death when the victim perished hun- 
dreds or thousands of years ago? Some prehistoric skeletons are accompanied 
by the stone-age equivalent of a smoking gun: a spearhead or arrowhead 
embedded in a bone, like the ones found in Kennewick Man and Otzi. But 
circumstantial evidence can be almost as damning. Archaeologists can check 
prehistoric skeletons for the kinds of damage known to be left by assaults in 
humans today. The stigmata include bashed-in skulls, cut marks from stone 
tools on skulls or limbs, and parry fractures on ulnar bones (the injury that a 
person gets when he defends himself against an assailant by holding up his 
arm). Injuries sustained by a skeleton when it was inside a living body can be 
distinguished in several ways from the damage it sustained when it was 
exposed to the world. Living bones fracture like glass, with sharp, angled 
edges, whereas dead bones fracture like chalk, at clean right angles. And if a 
bone has a different pattern of weathering on its fractured surface than on its 
intact surface, it was probably broken after the surrounding flesh had rotted 
away. Other incriminating signs from nearby surroundings include fortifica- 
tions, shields, shock weapons such as tomahawks (which are useless in hunt- 
ing), and depictions of human combat on the walls of caves (some of them 
more than six thousand years old). Even with all this evidence, archaeological 
death counts are usually underestimates, because some causes of death — a 
poisoned arrow, a septic wound, or a ruptured organ or artery — leave no trace 
on the victim's bones. 

Once researchers have tallied a raw count of violent deaths, they can convert 
it to a rate in either of two ways. The first is to calculate the percentage of all 
deaths that are caused by violence. This rate is an answer to the question, 
"What are the chances that a person died at the hands of another person rather 
than passing away of natural causes?" The graph in figure 2-2 presents this 
statistic for three samples of nonstate people — skeletons from prehistoric sites, 
hunter-gatherers, and hunter-horticulturalists — and for a variety of state soci- 
eties. Let's walk through it. 

The topmost cluster shows the rate of violent death for skeletons dug out 
of archaeological sites. 48 They are the remains of hunter-gatherers and hunter- 
horticulturalists from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas and date from 
14,000 BCE to 1770 CE, in every case well before the emergence of state socie- 
ties or the first sustained contact with them. The death rates range from o to 
60 percent, with an average of 15 percent. 

Percentage of deaths in warfare 

Crow Creek, South Dakota, 1325 CE 
Nubia, site 117, 12,000-10,000 BCE 
Sarai Nahar Rai, India, 2140-850 BCE 
Br, Columbia, 30 sites, 3500 BCE-1674 CE 
Volos'ke, Ukraine, -7500 BCE 
Vasiliv’ka III, Ukraine, 9000 BCE 
Illinois, 1300 CE 
Northeast Plains, 1485 CE 
Vedbaek, Dnk., 4100 BCE 
Bogebakken, Dnk., 4300-3800 BCE 
lie Teviec, France, 4600 BCE 
Brittany, 6000 BCE 
Ctl. California, 1400 BCE-235 CE 
Skateholm I, Sweden, 4100 BCE 
S. California, 28 sites, 3500 BCE-1380 CE 
Kentucky, 2750 BCE 
Ctl. California, 1500 BCE-1500 CE 
Calumnata, Algeria, 6300-5300 BCE 
Ctl. California, 2 sites, 240-1770 CE 
Nubia, nr. site 117, 12,000-10,000 BCE 
Gobero, Niger, 14,000-6200 BCE 
Avg. 21 prehistoric archaeological sites 

Ache, Paraguay 
Murngin, Australia 
Hiwi, Venezuela-Colombia 
Ayoreo, Bolivia-Paraguay 
Modoc, N. California 
Tiwi, Australia 
Casiguran Agta, Philippines 
Anbara, Australia 
Avg. 8 hunter-gatherer societies 

Waorani, Amazon 
Jivaro, Amazon 
Gebusi, New Guinea 
Montenegro, Europe 
Yanomamb-Shamatari, Amazon 
Mae Enga, New Guinea 
Dugum Dani, New Guinea 
Yanomamo-Namowei, Amazon 
Huli, New Guinea 
Anggor, New Guinea 
Avg. 10 hunter-hort. &. tribal groups 

Ancient Mexico, before 1500 CE 
World, 20th C (wars & genocides) 
Europe, 1900-1960 
Europe, 17th C. 
Europe &, U.S., 20th C. 
World, 20th C. (battle deaths) 
U.S., 2005 (war deaths) 
World, 2005 (battle deaths) 

FIGURE 2-2. Percentage of deaths in warfare in nonstate and state societies 

Sources: Prehistoric archaeological sites: Bowles, 2009; Keeley, 1996. Hunter-gatherers: 
Bowles, 2009. Hunter-horticulturalists and other tribal groups: Gat, 2006; Keeley, 1996. 
Ancient Mexico: Keeley, 1996. World, 20th-century wars & genocides (includes man-made 
famines): White, 2011. Europe, 1900-60: Keeley, 1996, from Wright, 1942, 1942/1964, 1942/ 
1965; see note 52. Europe, 17th-century: Keeley, 1996. Europe and United States, 20th 
century: Keeley, 1996, from Harris, 1975. World, 20th-century battle deaths: Lacina & 
Gleditsch, 2005; Sarkees, 2000; see note 54. United States, 2005 war deaths: see text and 
note 57. World, 2005 battle deaths: see text and note 58. 



Next are figures from eight contemporary or recent societies that make their 
living primarily from hunting and gathering. 49 They come from the Americas, 
the Philippines, and Australia. The average of the rates of death by warfare is 
within a whisker of the average estimated from the bones: 14 percent, with a 
range from 4 percent to 30 percent. 

In the next cluster I've lumped pre-state societies that engage in some mixture 
of hunting, gathering, and horticulture. All are from New Guinea or the Amazon 
rain forest, except Europe's last tribal society, the Montenegrins, whose rate of 
violent death is close to the average for the group as a whole, 24.5 percent. 50 

Finally we get to some figures for states. 51 The earliest are from the cities 
and empires of pre-Columbian Mexico, in which 5 percent of the dead were 
killed by other people. That was undoubtedly a dangerous place, but it was a 
third to a fifth as violent as an average pre-state society. When it comes to 
modern states, we are faced with hundreds of political units, dozens of cen- 
turies, and many subcategories of violence to choose from (wars, homicides, 
genocides, and so on), so there is no single "correct" estimate. But we can make 
the comparison as fair as possible by choosing the most violent countries and 
centuries, together with some estimates of violence in the world today. As we 
shall see in chapter 5, the two most violent centuries in the past half millen- 
nium of European history were the 17th, with its bloody Wars of Religion, and 
the 20th, with its two world wars. The historian Quincy Wright has estimated 
the rate of death in the wars of the 17th century at 2 percent, and the rate of 
death in war for the first half of the 20th at 3 percent. 52 If one were to include 
the last four decades of the 20th century, the percentage would be even lower. 
One estimate, which includes American war deaths as well, comes in at less 
than 1 percent. 53 

Recently the study of war has been made more precise by the release of two 
quantitative datasets, which I will explain in chapter 5. They conservatively 
list about 40 million battle deaths during the 20th century. 54 ("Battle deaths" 
refer to soldiers and civilians who were directly killed in combat.) If we con- 
sider that a bit more than 6 billion people died during the 20th century, and 
put aside some demographic subtleties, we may estimate that around 0.7 per- 
cent of the world's population died in battles during that century. 55 Even if we 
tripled or quadrupled the estimate to include indirect deaths from war-caused 
famine and disease, it would barely narrow the gap between state and nonstate 
societies. What if we added the deaths from genocides, purges, and other 
man-made disasters? Matthew White, the atrocitologist we met in chapter 1, 
estimates that around 180 million deaths can be blamed on all of these human 
causes put together. That still amounts to only 3 percent of the deaths in the 
20th century. 56 

Now let's turn to the present. According to the most recent edition of the 
Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2,448,017 Americans died in 2005. It was 
one of the country's worst years for war deaths in decades, with the armed 


forces embroiled in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Together the two wars 
killed 945 Americans, amounting to 0.0004 (four-hundredths of a percent) of 
American deaths that year. 57 Even if we throw in the 18,124 domestic homicides, 
the total rate of violent death adds up to 0.008, or eight-tenths of a percentage 
point. In other Western countries, the rates were even lower. And in the world 
as a whole, the Human Security Report Project counted 17,400 deaths that year 
that were directly caused by political violence (war, terrorism, genocide, and 
killings by warlords and militias), for a rate of 0.0003 (three-hundredths of a 
percent). 58 It's a conservative estimate, comprising only identifiable deaths, but 
even if we generously multiplied it by twenty to estimate undocumented bat- 
tle deaths and indirect deaths from famine and disease, it would not reach the 
1 percent mark. 

The major cleft in the graph, then, separates the anarchical bands and tribes 
from the governed states. But we have been comparing a motley collection of 
archaeological digs, ethnographic tallies, and modern estimates, some of them 
calculated on the proverbial back of an envelope. Is there some way to juxta- 
pose two datasets directly, one from hunter-gatherers, the other from settled 
civilizations, matching the people, era, and methods as closely as possible? 
The economists Richard Steckel and John Wallis recently looked at data on 
nine hundred skeletons of Native Americans, distributed from southern Can- 
ada to South America, all of whom died before the arrival of Columbus. 59 They 
divided the skeletons into hunter-gatherers and city dwellers, the latter from 
the civilizations in the Andes and Mesoamerica such as the Incas, Aztecs, and 
Mayans. The proportion of hunter-gatherers that showed signs of violent 
trauma was 13.4 percent, which is close to the average for the hunter-gatherers 
in figure 2-2. The proportion of city dwellers that showed signs of violent 
trauma was 2.7 percent, which is close to the figures for state societies before 
the present century. So holding many factors constant, we find that living in 
a civilization reduces one's chances of being a victim of violence fivefold. 

Let's turn to the second way of quantifying violence, in which the rate of 
killing is calculated as a proportion of living people rather than dead ones. 
This statistic is harder to compute from boneyards but easier to compute from 
most other sources, because it requires only a body count and a population 
size, not an inventory of deaths from other sources. The number of deaths per 
100,000 people per year is the standard measure of homicide rates, and I will 
use it as the yardstick of violence throughout the book. To get a feel for what 
these numbers mean, keep in mind that the safest place in human history. 
Western Europe at the turn of the 21st century, has a homicide rate in the 
neighborhood of 1 per 100,000 per year. 60 Even the gentlest society will have 
the occasional young man who gets carried away in a barroom brawl or an 
old woman who puts arsenic in her husband's tea, so that is pretty much as 
low as homicide rates ever go. Among modern Western countries, the United 
States lies at the dangerous end of the range. In the worst years of the 1970s 


and 1980s, it had a homicide rate of around 10 per 100,000, and its notoriously 
violent cities, like Detroit, had a rate of around 45 per ioo,ooo. 61 If you were 
living in a society with a homicide rate in that range, you would notice the 
danger in everyday life, and as the rate climbed to 100 per 100,000, the violence 
would start to affect you personally: assuming you have a hundred relatives, 
friends, and close acquaintances, then over the course of a decade one of them 
would probably be killed. If the rate soared to 1,000 per 100,000 (1 percent), you'd 
lose about one acquaintance a year, and would have a better-than-even lifetime 
chance of being murdered yourself. 

Figure 2-3 shows war death rates for twenty-seven nonstate societies (com- 
bining hunter-gatherers and hunter-horticulturalists) and nine that are ruled 
by states. The average annual rate of death in warfare for the nonstate societ- 
ies is 524 per 100,000, about half of 1 percent. Among states, the Aztec empire 
of central Mexico, which was often at war, had a rate about half that. 62 Below 
that bar we find the rates for four state societies during the centuries in which 
they waged their most destructive wars. Nineteenth-century France fought 
the Revolutionary, Napoleonic, and Franco-Prussian Wars and lost an average 
of 70 people per 100,000 per year. The 20th century was blackened by two world 
wars that inflicted most of their military damage on Germany, Japan, and 
Russia/USSR, which also had a civil war and other military adventures. Their 
annual rates of death work out to 144, 27, and 135 per 100,000, respectively. 63 
During the 20th century the United States acquired a reputation as a warmon- 
ger, fighting in two world wars and in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and 
Iraq. But the annual cost in American lives was even smaller than those of 
the other great powers of the century, about 3.7 per ioo,ooo. 64 Even if we add 
up all the deaths from organized violence for the entire world for the 
entire century — wars, genocides, purges, and man-made famines — we get an 
annual rate of around 60 per ioo,ooo. 65 For the year 2005, the bars representing 
the United States and the entire world are paint-thin and invisible in the 
graph. 66 

So by this measure too, states are far less violent than traditional bands and 
tribes. Modern Western countries, even in their most war-torn centuries, suf- 
fered no more than around a quarter of the average death rate of nonstate 
societies, and less than a tenth of that for the most violent one. 

Though war is common among foraging groups, it is certainly not universal. 
Nor should we expect it to be if the violent inclinations in human nature are 
a strategic response to the circumstances rather than a hydraulic response to 
an inner urge. According to two ethnographic surveys, 65 to 70 percent of 
hunter-gatherer groups are at war at least every two years, 90 percent engage 
in war at least once a generation, and virtually all the rest report a cultural 
memory of war in the past 67 That means that hunter-gatherers often fight, 
but they can avoid war for long stretches of time. Figure 2-3 reveals two tribes. 

War deaths per 1 00,000 people per year 




— r 



- r 












- r 



“ 1 

Kato, California, 1840s 
Grand Valley Dani, New Guinea 
Piegan, North American plains 
Dinka, N.E. Africa 
Fiji, 1860s 
Hewa, New Guinea 
Chippewa, Minnesota, 1825-1832 
Telefolmin, New Guinea, 1939-1950 
Buin, Solomon Islands 
Goilala, New Guinea 
Kalinga, Philippines (headhunts) 
Mtetwa, S. Africa, 1806-1814 
Dugum Dani, New Guinea, 1961 
Manga, New Guinea, 1949-1956 
Modoc, California 
Auyana, New Guinea, 1924-1949 
Murngin, Australia, 20 yrs. 
Mae Enga, New Guinea, 1900-1950 
Tauade, New Guinea, 1900-1946 
Yanomamo, Amazon, 1938-1958 
Yurok, California 
Mohave, California-Arizona, 1840s 
Gebusi, New Guinea, 1940-1982 
Tiwi, Australia, 1893-1903 
Boko Dani, New Guinea, 1937-1962 
Andamanese, Indian Ocean, 30 yrs. 

Semai, S.E. Asia 




Avg. 27 nonstate societies 

Central Mexico, 1419-1519 
Germany, 20th C. 
Russia, 20th C. 
France, 19th C. 
World, 20th C. (wars & genocides) 
Japan, 20th C. 
U.S., 20th C. (war deaths) 
U.S., 2005 (battle deaths) 
World, 2005 (battle deaths) 


FIGURE 2-3. Rate of death in warfare in nonstate and state societies 

Sources: Nonstate: Hewa and Goilala from Gat, 2006; others from Keeley, 1996. Central Mexico, Germany, 
Russia, France, Japan: Keeley, 1996; see notes 62 and 63. United States in the 20th century: Leland & 
Oboroceanu, 2010; see note 64. World in 20th century: White, 2011; see note 65. World in 2005: Human 
Security Report Project, 2008; see notes 57 and 58. 



the Andamanese and the Semai, with low rates of death in warfare. But even 
they have interesting stories. 

The Andaman Islanders of the Indian Ocean are recorded as having an 
annual death rate of 20 per 100,000, well below the average for nonstate peoples 
(which exceeds 500 per 100,000). But they are known to be among the fiercest 
hunter-gatherer groups left on earth. Following the 2004 Indian Ocean earth- 
quake and tsunami, a worried humanitarian group flew over to the islands 
in a helicopter and were relieved to be met with a fusillade of arrows and 
spears, signs that the Andamanese had not been wiped out. Two years later a 
pair of Indian fishers fell into a drunken sleep, and their boat drifted ashore 
on one of the islands. They were immediately slain, and the helicopter sent to 
retrieve their bodies was also met with a shower of arrows. 68 

There are, to be sure, hunter-gatherers and hunter-horticulturalists such as 
the Semai who have never been known to engage in the protracted, collective 
killings that can be called warfare. Anthropologists of peace have made much 
of these groups, suggesting that they could have been the norm in human 
evolutionary history, and that it is only the newer and wealthier horticultural- 
ists and pastoralists who engage in systematic violence. The hypothesis is not 
directly relevant to this chapter, which compares people living in anarchy 
with those living under states rather than hunter-gatherers with everyone 
else. But there are reasons to doubt the hypothesis of hunter-gatherer inno- 
cence anyway. Figure 2-3 shows that the rates of death in warfare in these 
societies, though lower than those of horticulturalists and tribesmen, overlap 
with them considerably. And as I have mentioned, the hunter-gatherer groups 
we observe today may be historically unrepresentative. We find them in 
parched deserts or frozen wastelands where no one else wants to live, and 
they may have ended up there because they can keep a low profile and vote 
with their feet whenever they get on each other's nerves. As Van der Dennen 
comments, "Most contemporary 'peaceful' foragers . . . have solved the peren- 
nial problem of being left in peace by splendid isolation, by severing all con- 
tacts with other peoples, by fleeing and hiding, or else by being beaten into 
submission, by being tamed by defeat, by being pacified by force." 69 For 
example, the !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert, who in the 1960s were extolled 
as a paradigm of hunter-gatherer harmony, in earlier centuries had engaged 
in frequent warfare with European colonists, their Bantu neighbors, and one 
another, including several all-out massacres. 70 

The low rates of death in warfare in selected small-scale societies can be 
misleading in another way. Though they may avoid war, they do commit the 
occasional murder, and their homicide rates can be compared to those of mod- 
ern state societies. I've plotted them in figure 2-4 on a scale that is fifteen times 
larger than that of figure 2-3. Let's begin with the right-most gray bar in the 
nonstate cluster. The Semai are a hunting and horticulturalist tribe who were 
described in a book called The Semai: A Nonviolerit People of Malaya and who 


go out of their way to avoid the use of force. While there aren't many Semai 
homicides, there aren't many Semai. When the anthropologist Bruce Knauft 
did the arithmetic, he found that their homicide rate was 30 per 100,000 per 
year, which puts it in the range of the infamously dangerous American cities 
in their most violent years and at three times the rate of the United States as a 
whole in its most violent decade. 71 The same kind of long division has deflated 
the peaceful reputation of the !Kung, the subject of a book called The Harmless 
People, and of the Central Arctic Inuit (Eskimos), who inspired a book called 
Never in Anger . 72 Not only do these harmless, nonviolent, anger-free people 
murder each other at rates far greater than Americans or Europeans do, but 
the murder rate among the !Kung went down by a third after their territory 
had been brought under the control of the Botswana government, as the Levi- 
athan theory would predict. 73 

The reduction of homicide by government control is so obvious to anthro- 
pologists that they seldom document it with numbers. The various "paxes" that 
one reads about in history books— the Pax Romana, Islamica, Mongolica, His- 
panica, Ottomana, Sinica, Britannica, Australiana (in New Guinea), Canadiana 
(in the Pacific Northwest), and Praetoriana (in South Africa) — refer to the reduc- 
tion in raiding, feuding, and warfare in the territories brought under the control 



















FIGURE 2-4. Homicide rates in the least violent nonstate societies compared 
to state societies 

Sources: !Kung and Central Arctic Inuit: Gat, 2006; Lee, 1982. Semai: Knauft, 1987. Ten largest 
U.S. cities: Zimring, 2007, p. 140. United States: FBI Uniform Crime Reports; see note 73. 
Western Europe (approximation): World Health Organization; see note 66 to chap. 3, p. 701. 


of an effective government. 74 Though imperial conquest and rule can themselves 
be brutal, they do reduce endemic violence among the conquered. The Pacification 
Process is so pervasive that anthropologists often treat it as a methodological 
nuisance. It goes without saying that peoples that have been brought under the 
jurisdiction of a government will not fight as much, so they are simply excluded 
from studies of violence in indigenous societies. The effect is also noticeable to 
the people themselves. As an Auyana man living in New Guinea under the Pax 
Australiana put it, "Life was better since the government came" because "a man 
could now eat without looking over his shoulder and could leave his house in the 
morning to urinate without fear of being shot." 75 

The anthropologists Karen Ericksen and Heather Horton have quantified 
the way that the presence of government can move a society away from lethal 
vengeance. In a survey of 192 traditional studies, they found that one-on-one 
revenge was common in foraging societies, and kin-against-kin blood feuds 
were common in tribal societies that had not been pacified by a colonial or 
national government, particularly if they had an exaggerated culture of manly 
honor. 76 Adjudication by tribunals and courts, in contrast, was common in soci- 
eties that had fallen under the control of a centralized government, or that had 
resource bases and inheritance patterns that gave people more of a stake in 
social stability. 

One of the tragic ironies of the second half of the 20th century is that when 
colonies in the developing world freed themselves from European rule, they 
often slid back into warfare, this time intensified by modern weaponry, orga- 
nized militias, and the freedom of young men to defy tribal elders. 77 As we 
shall see in the next chapter, this development is a countercurrent to the his- 
torical decline of violence, but it is also a demonstration of the role of Levia- 
thans in propelling the decline. 


So did Hobbes get it right? In part, he did. In the nature of man we find three 
principal causes of quarrel: gain (predatory raids), safety (preemptive raids), 
and reputation (retaliatory raids). And the numbers confirm that relatively 
speaking, "during the time men live without a common power to keep them 
all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war," and that in such 
condition they live in "continual fear, and danger of violent death." 

But from his armchair in 17th-century England, Hobbes could not help but 
get a lot of it wrong. People in nonstate societies cooperate extensively with 
their kin and allies, so life for them is far from "solitary," and only intermit- 
tently is it nasty and brutish. Even if they are drawn into raids and battles 
every few years, that leaves a lot of time for foraging, feasting, singing, story- 
telling, childrearing, tending to the sick, and the other necessities and plea- 
sures of life. In a draft of a previous book, I casually referred to the Yanomamo 


as "the fierce people/' alluding to the title of the famous book by the anthro- 
pologist Napoleon Chagnon. An anthropologist colleague wrote in the margin: 
"Are the babies fierce? Are the old women fierce? Do they eat fiercely?" 

As for their lives being "poor," the story is mixed. Certainly societies with- 
out an organized state enjoy "no commodious building; no instruments of 
moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of 
the face of the earth; no account of time, [and] no letters," since it's hard to 
develop these things if the warriors from the next village keep waking you 
up with poisoned arrows, abducting the women, and burning your huts. But 
the first peoples who gave up hunting and gathering for settled agriculture 
struck a hard bargain for themselves. Spending your days behind a plow, 
subsisting on starchy cereal grains, and living cheek by jowl with livestock 
and thousands of other people can be hazardous to your health. Studies of 
skeletons by Steckel and his colleagues show that compared to hunter- 
gatherers, the first city dwellers were anemic, infected, tooth-decayed, and 
almost two and a half inches shorter. 78 Some biblical scholars believe that the 
story of the fall from the Garden of Eden was a cultural memory of the transi- 
tion from foraging to agriculture: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat 
bread ." 79 

So why did our foraging ancestors leave Eden? For many, it was never an 
explicit choice: they had multiplied themselves into a Malthusian trap in which 
the fat of the land could no longer support them, and they had to grow their 
food themselves. The states emerged only later, and the foragers who lived at 
their frontiers could either be absorbed into them or hold out in their old way 
of life. For those who had the choice, Eden may have been just too dangerous. 
A few cavities, the odd abscess, and a couple of inches in height were a small 
price to pay for a fivefold better chance of not getting speared . 80 

The improved odds of a natural death came with another price, captured 
by the Roman historian Tacitus: "Formerly we suffered from crimes; now we 
suffer from laws." The Bible stories we examined in chapter 1 suggest that the 
first kings kept their subjects in awe with totalistic ideologies and brutal pun- 
ishments. Just think of the wrathful deity watching people's every move, the 
regulation of daily life by arbitrary laws, the stonings for blasphemy and non- 
conformity, the kings with the power to expropriate a woman into their harem 
or cut a baby in half, the crucifixions of thieves and cult leaders. In these 
respects the Bible was accurate. Social scientists who study the emergence of 
states have noted that they began as stratified theocracies in which elites 
secured their economic privileges by enforcing a brutal peace on their under- 
lings . 81 

Three scholars have analyzed large samples of cultures to quantify the 
correlation between the political complexity of early societies and their reli- 
ance on absolutism and cruelty . 82 The archaeologist Keith Otterbein has shown 
that societies with more centralized leadership were more likely to kill women 


in battles (as opposed to abducting them), to keep slaves, and to engage in 
human sacrifice. The sociologist Steven Spitzer has shown that complex soci- 
eties are more likely to criminalize victimless activities like sacrilege, sexual 
deviance, disloyalty, and witchcraft, and to punish offenders by torture, muti- 
lation, enslavement, and execution. And the historian and anthropologist 
Laura Betzig has shown that complex societies tend to fall under the control 
of despots: leaders who are guaranteed to get their way in conflicts, who can 
kill with impunity, and who have large harems of women at their disposal. 
She found that despotism in this sense emerged among the Babylonians, Isra- 
elites, Romans, Samoans, Fijians, Khmer, Aztecs, Incas, Natchez (of the lower 
Mississippi), Ashanti, and other kingdoms throughout Africa. 

When it came to violence, then, the first Leviathans solved one problem but 
created another. People were less likely to become victims of homicide or 
casualties of war, but they were now under the thumbs of tyrants, clerics, and 
kleptocrats. This gives us the more sinister sense of the word pacification: not 
just the bringing about of peace but the imposition of absolute control by a 
coercive government. Solving this second problem would have to wait another 
few millennia, and in much of the world it remains unsolved to this day. 



It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renun- 
ciation of instinct. 

— Sigmund Freud 

F or as long as I have known how to eat with utensils, I have struggled with 
the rule of table manners that says that you may not guide food onto your 
fork with your knife. To be sure, I have the dexterity to capture chunks of food 
that have enough mass to stay put as I scoot my fork under them. But my 
feeble cerebellum is no match for finely diced cubes or slippery little spheres 
that ricochet and roll at the touch of the tines. I chase them around the plate, 
desperately seeking a ridge or a slope that will give me the needed purchase, 
hoping they will not reach escape velocity and come to rest on the tablecloth. 
On occasion I have seized the moment when my dining companion glances 
away and have placed my knife to block their getaway before she turns back 
to catch me in this faux pas. Anything to avoid the ignominy, the boorishness, 
the intolerable uncouthness of using a knife for some purpose other than cut- 
ting. Give me a lever long enough, said Archimedes, and a fulcrum on which 
to place it, and I shall move the world. But if he knew his table manners, he 
could not have moved some peas onto his fork with his knife! 

I remember, as a child, questioning this pointless prohibition. What is so 
terrible, I asked, about using your silverware in an efficient and perfectly 
sanitary way? It's not as if I were asking to eat mashed potatoes with my hands. 
I lost the argument, as all children do, when faced with the rejoinder “Because 
I said so," and for decades I silently grumbled about the unintelligibility of 
the rules of etiquette. Then one day, while doing research for this book, the 
scales fell from my eyes, the enigma evaporated, and I forever put aside my 
resentment of the no-knife rule. I owe this epiphany to the most important 
thinker you have never heard of, Norbert Elias (1897-1990). 

Elias was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroctaw, Poland), and studied 
sociology and the history of science. 1 He fled Germany in 1933 because he was 
Jewish, was detained in a British camp in 1940 because he was German, and 



lost both parents to the Holocaust. On top of these tragedies, Nazism brought 
one more into his life: his magnum opus. The Civilizing Process, was published 
in Germany in 1939, a time when the very idea seemed like a bad joke. Elias 
vagabonded from one university to another, mostly teaching night school, and 
retrained as a psychotherapist before settling down at the University of Leices- 
ter, where he taught until his retirement in 1962. He emerged from obscurity 
in 1969 when The Civilizing Process was published in English translation, and 
he was recognized as a major figure only in the last decade of his life, when 
an astonishing fact came to light. The discovery was not about the rationale 
behind table manners but about the history of homicide. 

In 1981 the political scientist Ted Robert Gurr, using old court and county 
records, calculated thirty estimates of homicide rates at various times in 
English history, combined them with modern records from London, and plot- 
ted them on a graph. 2 I've reproduced it in figure 3-1, using a logarithmic scale 
in which the same vertical distance separates 1 from 10, 10 from 100, and 100 
from 1000. The rate is calculated in the same way as in the preceding chapter, 
namely the number of killings per 100,000 people per year. The log scale is 
necessary because the homicide rate declined so precipitously. The graph 
shows that from the 13th century to the 20th, homicide in various parts of 
England plummeted by a factor of ten, fifty, and in some cases a hundred — for 
example, from 110 homicides per 100,000 people per year in 14th-century 
Oxford to less than 1 homicide per 100,000 in mid-20th-century London. 

The graph stunned almost everyone who saw it (including me — as 
































• . y* 

© a j 


0.1 I 1 ! 1 i 1 I I 

1200 I3OO I4OO I5OO 1600 1700 1800 1900 2000 

FIGURE 3-1. Homicide rates in England, 1200-2000: Gurr’s 1981 estimates 

Source: Data from Gurr, 1981, pp. 303-4, 313. 


I mentioned in the preface, it was the seed that grew into this book). The dis- 
covery confounds every stereotype about the idyllic past and the degenerate 
present. When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire, 
people guessed that 20th-century England was about 14 percent more violent 
than 14th-century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent. 3 

This chapter is about the decline of homicide in Europe from the Middle 
Ages to the present, and its counterparts and counterexamples in other times 
and places. I have borrowed the title of the chapter from Elias because he was 
the only major social thinker with a theory that could explain it. 


Before we try to explain this remarkable development, let's be sure it is real. 
Following the publication of Gurr's graph, several historical criminologists 
dug more deeply into the history of homicide. 4 The criminologist Manuel 
Eisner assembled a much larger set of estimates on homicide in England across 
the centuries, drawing on coroners' inquests, court cases, and local records. 5 
Each dot on the graph in figure 3-2 is an estimate from some town or jurisdic- 
tion, plotted once again on a logarithmic scale. By the 19th century the British 
government was keeping annual records of homicide for the entire country, 
which are plotted on the graph as a gray line. Another historian, J. S. Cockburn, 
compiled continuous data from the town of Kent between 1560 and 1985, which 
Eisner superimposed on his own data as the black line. 6 

FIGURE 3-2. Homicide rates in England, 1200-2000 

Source: Graph from Eisner, 2003. 


Once again we see a decline in annual homicide rates, and it is not small: 
from between 4 and 100 homicides per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages to 
around 0.8 (eight-tenths of a homicide) per 100,000 in the 1950s. The timing 
shows that the high medieval murder rates cannot be blamed on the social 
upheavals that followed the Black Death around 1350, because many of the 
estimates predated that epidemic. 

Eisner has given a lot of thought to how much we should trust these num- 
bers. Homicide is the crime of choice for measurers of violence because regard- 
less of how the people of a distant culture conceptualize crime, a dead body 
is hard to define away, and it always arouses curiosity about who or what 
produced it. Records of homicide are therefore a more reliable index of violence 
than records of robbery, rape, or assault, and they usually (though not always) 
correlate with them." 

Still, it's reasonable to wonder how the people of different eras reacted to 
these killings. Were they as likely as we are to judge a killing as intentional or 
accidental, or to prosecute the killing as opposed to letting it pass? Did people 
in earlier times always kill at the same percentage of the rate that they raped, 
robbed, and assaulted? How successful were they in saving the lives of 
victims of assault and thereby preventing them from becoming victims of 

Fortunately, these questions can be addressed. Eisner cites studies showing 
that when people today are presented with the circumstances of a centuries- 
old murder and asked whether they think it was intentional, they usually 
come to the same conclusion as did the people at the time. He has shown that 
in most periods, the rates of homicide do correlate with the rates of other vio- 
lent crimes. He notes that any historical advance in forensics or in the reach 
of the criminal justice system is bound to underestimate the decline in homicide, 
because a greater proportion of killers are caught, prosecuted, and convicted 
today than they were centuries ago. As for lifesaving medical care, doctors 
before the 20th century were quacks who killed as many patients as they saved; 
yet most of the decline took place between 1300 and 1900. 8 In any case/the 
sampling noise that gives social scientists such a headache when they are 
estimating a change of a quarter or a half is not as much of a problem when 
they are dealing with a change of tenfold or fiftyfold. 

Were the English unusual among Europeans in gradually refraining from 
murder? Eisner looked at other Western European countries for which crimi- 
nologists had compiled homicide data. Figure 3-3 shows that the results were 
similar. Scandinavians needed a couple of additional centuries before they 
thought the better of killing each other, and Italians didn't get serious about 
it until the 19th century. But by the 20th century the annual homicide rate of 
every Western European country had fallen into a narrow band centered on 
1 per 100,000. 


FIGURE 3-3. Homicide rates in five Western European regions, 1300-2000 

Source: Data from Eisner, 2003, table 1. 

To put the European decline in perspective, let's compare it to the rates for 
nonstate societies that we encountered in chapter 2. In figure 3-4 I have ex- 
tended the vertical axis up to 1,000 on the log scale to accommodate the addi- 
tional order of magnitude required by the nonstate societies. Even in the late 
Middle Ages, Western Europe was far less violent than the unpacified nonstate 
societies and the Inuit, and it was comparable to the thinly settled foragers 
such as the Semai and the !Kung. And from the 14th century on, the European 
homicide rate sank steadily, with a tiny bounce in the last third of the 20th 

While Europe was becoming less murderous overall, certain patterns in 
homicide remained constant. 9 Men were responsible for about 92 percent 
of the killings (other than infanticide), and they were most likely to kill when 
they were in their twenties. Until the 1960s uptick, cities were generally safer 
than the countryside. But other patterns changed. In the earlier centuries the 
upper and lower social classes engaged in homicide at comparable rates. But 
as the homicide rate fell, it dropped far more precipitously among the upper 
classes than among the lower ones, an important social change to which we 
will return. 10 

Another historical change was that homicides in which one man kills 
another man who is unrelated to him declined far more rapidly than did the 
killing of children, parents, spouses, and siblings. This is a common pattern 
in homicide statistics, sometimes called Verkko's Law: rates of male-on-male 


FIGURE 3-4. Homicide rates in Western Europe, 1300-2000, and in nonstate societies 

Sources: Nonstate (geometric mean of 26 societies, not including Semai, Inuit, and !Kung): see figure 
2-3. Europe: Eisner, 2003, table 1; geometric mean of five regions; missing data interpolated. 

violence fluctuate more across different times and places than rates of domes- 
tic violence involving women or kin. 11 Martin Daly and Margo Wilson's expla- 
nation is that family members get on each other's nerves at similar rates in all 
times and places because of deeply rooted conflicts of interest that are inher- 
ent to the patterns of genetic overlap among kin. Macho violence among male 
acquaintances, in contrast, is fueled by contests of dominance that are more 
sensitive to circumstances. How violent a man must be to keep his rank in the 
pecking order in a given milieu depends on his assessment of how violent the 
other men are, leading to vicious or virtuous circles that can spiral up or down 
precipitously. I'll explore the psychology of kinship in more detail in chapter 
7, and of dominance in chapter 8. 


Now let's consider the implications of the centuries-long decline in homicide 
in Europe. Do you think that city living, with its anonymity, crowding, immi- 
grants, and jumble of cultures and classes, is a breeding ground for violence? 
What about the wrenching social changes brought on by capitalism and the 
Industrial Revolution? Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on 
church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and 
mayhem? Well, think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, 
commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer. And that 
brings us back to the ideas of Norbert Elias, the only theory left standing. 


States were ineffectual, and the king was merely the most prominent of the 
noblemen, with no permanent army and little control over the country. Gov- 
ernance was outsourced to the barons, knights, and other noblemen who con- 
trolled fiefs of various sizes, exacting crops and military service from the 
peasants who lived in them. The knights raided one another's territories in a 
Hobbesian dynamic of conquest, preemptive attack, and vengeance, and as 
the Housebook illustrations suggest, they did not restrict their killing to other 
knights. In A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, the historian Barbara 
Tuchman describes the way they made a living: 

These private wars were fought by the knights with furious gusto and a 
single strategy, which consisted in trying to ruin the enemy by killing and 
maiming as many of his peasants and destroying as many crops, vineyards, 
tools, barns, and other possessions as possible, thereby reducing his sources 
of revenue. As a result, the chief victim of the belligerents was their respec- 
tive peasantry. 13 

As we saw in chapter 1, to maintain the credibility of their deterrent threat, 
knights engaged in bloody tournaments and other demonstrations of macho 
prowess, gussied up with words like honor, valor, chivalry, glory, and gallantry, 
which made later generations forget they were bloodthirsty marauders. 

The private wars and tournaments were the backdrop to a life that was 
violent in other ways. As we saw, religious values were imparted with bloody 
crucifixes, threats of eternal torture, and prurient depictions of mutilated 
saints. Craftsmen applied their ingenuity to sadistic machines of punishment 
and execution. Brigands made travel a threat to life and limb, and ransoming 
captives was big business. As Elias noted, "the little people, too- — the hatters, 
the tailors, the shepherds — were all quick to draw their knives." 14 Even clergy- 
men got into the act. The historian Barbara Hanawalt quotes an account from 
14th-century England: 

It happened at Ylvertoft on Saturday next before Martinmass in the fifth 
year of King Edward that a certain William of Wellington, parish chaplain 
of Ylvertoft, sent John, his clerk, to John Cobbler's house to buy a candle for 
him for a penny. But John would not send it to him without the money 
wherefore William became enraged, and, knocking in the door upon him, 
he struck John in the front part of the head so that his brains flowed forth 
and he died forthwith. 15 

Violence pervaded their entertainment as well. Tuchman describes two of 
the popular sports of the time: "Players with hands tied behind them competed 
to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk 
of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal's claws 


Or a pig enclosed in a wide pen was chased by men with clubs to the laughter 
of spectators as he ran squealing from the blows until beaten lifeless." 16 

During my decades in academia I have read thousands of scholarly papers 
on a vast range of topics, from the grammar of irregular verbs to the physics 
of multiple universes. But the oddest journal article I have ever read is "Losing 
Face, Saving Face: Noses and Honour in the Late Medieval Town." 17 Here the 
historian Valentin Groebner documents dozens of accounts from medieval 
Europe in which one person cut off the nose of another. Sometimes it was an 
official punishment for heresy, treason, prostitution, or sodomy, but more often 
it was an act of private vengeance. In one case in Nuremberg in 1520, Hanns 
Rigel had an affair with the wife of Hanns von Eyb. A jealous von Eyb cut off 
the nose of Rigel's innocent wife, a supreme injustice multiplied by the fact 
that Rigel was sentenced to four weeks of imprisonment for adultery while 
von Eyb walked away scot-free. These mutilations were so common that, 
according to Groebner, 

the authors of late-medieval surgical textbooks also devote particular atten- 
tion to nasal injuries, discussing whether a nose once cut off can grow back, 
a controversial question that the French royal physician Henri de Monde- 
ville answered in his famous Chirurgia with a categorical "No." Other 
fifteenth-century medical authorities were more optimistic: Heinrich von 
Pforspundt's 1460 pharmacoepia promised, among other things, a prescrip- 
tion for "making a new nose" for those who had lost theirs. 18 

The practice was the source of our strange idiom to cut off your nose to spite your 
face. In late medieval times, cutting off someone's nose was the prototypical 
act of spite. 

Like other scholars who have peered into medieval life, Elias was taken 
aback by accounts of the temperament of medieval people, who by our lights 
seem impetuous, uninhibited, almost childlike: 

Not that people were always going around with fierce looks, drawn brows 
and martial countenances. . . . On the contrary, a moment ago they were 
joking, now they mock each other, one word leads to another, and suddenly 
from the midst of laughter they find themselves in the fiercest feud. Much 
of what appears contradictory to us — the intensity of their piety, the violence 
of their fear of hell, their guilt feelings, their penitence, the immense out- 
bursts of joy and gaiety, the sudden flaring and the uncontrollable force of 
their hatred and belligerence — all these, like the rapid changes of mood, are 
in reality symptoms of one and the same structuring of the emotional life. 
The drives, the emotions were vented more freely, more directly, more 
openly than later. It is only to us, in whom everything is more subdued, 
moderate, and calculated, and in whom social taboos are built much more 


deeply into the fabric of our drive-economy as self-restraints, that the 
unveiled intensity of this piety, belligerence, or cruelty appears to be con- 
tradictory. 19 

Tuchman too writes of the "childishness noticeable in medieval behavior, 
with its marked inability to restrain any kind of impulse." 20 Dorothy Sayers, 
in the introduction to her translation of The Song of Roland, adds, "The idea 
that a strong man should react to great personal and national calamities by a 
slight compression of the lips and by silently throwing his cigarette into the 
fireplace is of very recent origin." 21 

Though the childishness of the medievals was surely exaggerated, there 
may indeed be differences in degree in the mores of emotional expression in 
different eras. Elias spends much of The Civilizing Process documenting this 
transition with an unusual database: manuals of etiquette. Today we think of 
these books, like Amy Vanderbilt's Everyday Etiquette and Miss Manners’ Guide 
to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, as sources of handy tips for avoiding embar- 
rassing peccadilloes. But at one time they were serious guides to moral con- 
duct, written by the leading thinkers of the day. In 1530 the great scholar 
Desiderius Erasmus, one of the founders of modernity, wrote an etiquette 
manual called On Civility in Boys which was a bestseller throughout Europe 
for two centuries. By laying down rules for what people ought not to do, these 
manuals give us a snapshot of what they must have been doing. 

The people of the Middle Ages were, in a word, gross. A number of the 
advisories in the etiquette books deal with eliminating bodily effluvia: 

Don't foul the staircases, corridors, closets, or wall hangings with urine or 
other filth. • Don't relieve yourself in front of ladies, or before doors or win- 
dows of court chambers. • Don't slide back and forth on your chair as if 
you're trying to pass gas. • Don't touch your private parts under your clothes 
with your bare hands. • Don't greet someone while they are urinating 
or defecating. • Don't make noise when you pass gas. • Don't undo your 
clothes in front of other people in preparation for defecating, or do them up 
afterwards. • When you share a bed with someone in an inn, don't lie so 
close to him that you touch him, and don't put your legs between his. • If 
you come across something disgusting in the sheet, don't turn to your com- 
panion and point it out to him, or hold up the stinking thing for the other 
to smell and say "I should like to know how much that stinks." 

Others deal with blowing one's nose: 

Don't blow your nose onto the tablecloth, or into your fingers, sleeve, or hat. • 
Don't offer your used handkerchief to someone else. • Don't carry your 
handkerchief in your mouth. • "Nor is it seemly, after wiping your nose, to 


spread out your handkerchief and peer into it as if pearls and rubies might 
have fallen out of your head ." 22 

Then there are fine points of spitting: 

Don't spit into the bowl when you are washing your hands. • Do not spit so 
far that you have to look for the saliva to put your foot on it. • Turn away 
when spitting, lest your saliva fall on someone. • "If anything purulent falls 
to the ground, it should be trodden upon, lest it nauseate someone ." 23 • If 
you notice saliva on someone's coat, it is not polite to make it known. 

And there are many, many pieces of advice on table manners: 

Don't be the first to take from the dish. • Don't fall on the food like a pig, 
snorting and smacking your lips. • Don't turn the serving dish around so 
the biggest piece of meat is near you. • "Don't wolf your food like you're 
about to be carried off to prison, nor push so much food into your mouth 
that your cheeks bulge like bellows, nor pull your lips apart so that they 
make a noise like pigs." • Don't dip your fingers into the sauce in the serving 
dish. • Don't put a spoon into your mouth and then use it to take food from 
the serving dish. • Don't gnaw on a bone and put it back in the serving dish. • 
Don't wipe your utensils on the tablecloth. • Don't put back on your plate 
what has been in your mouth. • Do not offer anyone a piece of food you have 
bitten into. • Don't lick your greasy fingers, wipe them on the bread, or wipe 
them on your coat. • Don't lean over to drink from your soup bowl. • Don't 
spit bones, pits, eggshells, or rinds into your hand, or throw them on the 
floor. • Don't pick your nose while eating. • Don't drink from your dish; use 
a spoon. • Don't slurp from your spoon. • Don't loosen your belt at the table. • 
Don't clean a dirty plate with your fingers. • Don't stir sauce with your fin- 
gers. • Don't lift meat to your nose to smell it. • Don't drink coffee from your 

In the mind of a modern reader, these advisories set off a train of reactions. 
How inconsiderate, how boorish, how animalistic, how immature those peo- 
ple must have been! These are the kinds of directives you'd expect a parent to 
give to a three-year-old, not a great philosopher to a literate readership. Yet as 
Elias points out, the habits of refinement, self-control, and consideration that 
are second nature to us had to be acquired — that's why we call them second 
nature — and they developed in Europe over the course of its modern history. 

The sheer quantity of the advice tells a story. The three-dozen-odd rules 
are not independent of one another but exemplify a few themes. It's unlikely 
that each of us today had to be instructed in every rule individually, so that if 
some mother had been remiss in teaching one of them, her adult son would 


still be blowing his nose into the tablecloth. The rules in the list (and many 
more that are not) are deducible from a few principles: Control your appetites; 
Delay gratification; Consider the sensibilities of others; Don't act like a peas- 
ant; Distance yourself from your animal nature. And the penalty for these 
infractions was assumed to be internal: a sense of shame. Elias notes that the 
etiquette books rarely mention health and hygiene. Today we recognize that 
the emotion of disgust evolved as an unconscious defense against biological 
contamination. 24 But an understanding of microbes and infection did not 
arrive until well into the 19th century. The only explicit rationales stated in 
the etiquette books are to avoid acting like a peasant or an animal and to avoid 
offending others. 

In the European Middle Ages, sexual activity too was less discreet. People 
were publicly naked more often, and couples took only perfunctory measures 
to keep their coitus private. Prostitutes offered their services openly; in many 
English towns, the red-light district was called Gropecunt Lane. Men would 
discuss their sexual exploits with their children, and a man's illegitimate off- 
spring would mix with his legitimate ones. During the transition to modernity, 
this openness came to be frowned upon as uncouth and then as unacceptable. 

The change left its mark in the language. Words for peasantry took on a 
second meaning as words for turpitude: boor (which originally just meant 
"farmer," as in the German Bauer and Dutch boer); villain (from the French 
vilein, a serf or villager); churlish (from English churl, a commoner); vulgar (com- 
mon, as in the term vulgate ); and ignoble, not an aristocrat. Many of the words 
for the fraught actions and substances became taboo. Englishmen used to 
swear by invoking supernatural beings, as in My God! and Jesus Christ! At the 
start of the modern era they began to invoke sexuality and excretion, and the 
"Anglo-Saxon four-letter words," as we call them today, could no longer be 
used in polite company. 25 As the historian Geoffrey Hughes has noted, "The 
days when the dandelion could be called the pissabed, a heron could be called 
a shitecrow and the windhover could be called the ivindf 'ucker have passed away 
with the exuberant phallic advertisement of the codpiece." 26 Bastard, cunt, arse, 
and whore also passed from ordinary to taboo. 

As the new etiquette took hold, it also applied to the accoutrements of vio- 
lence, particularly knives. In the Middle Ages, most people carried a knife and 
would use it at the dinner table to carve a chunk of meat off the roasted carcass, 
spear it, and bring it to their mouths. But the menace of a lethal weapon within 
reach at a communal gathering, and the horrific image of a knife pointed at a 
face, became increasingly repellent. Elias cites a number of points of etiquette 
that center on the use of knives: 

Don't pick your teeth with your knife. • Don't hold your knife the entire time 

you are eating, but only when you are using it. • Don't use the tip of your 

knife to put food into your mouth. • Don't cut bread; break it. • If you pass 


someone a knife, take the point in your hand and offer him the handle. 

• Don't clutch your knife with your whole hand like a stick, but hold it in 
your fingers. • Don't use your knife to point at someone. 

It was during this transition that the fork came into common use as a table 
utensil, so that people no longer had to bring their knives to their mouths. 
Special knives were set at the table so people would not have to unsheathe 
their own, and they were designed with rounded rather than pointed ends. 
Certain foods were never to be cut with a knife, such as fish, round objects, 
and bread — hence the expression to break bread together. 

Some of the medieval knife taboos remain with us today. Many people will 
not give a knife as a present unless it is accompanied by a coin, which the 
recipient gives back, to make the transaction a sale rather than a gift. The 
ostensible reason is to avoid the symbolism of "severing the friendship," but 
a more likely reason is to avoid the symbolism of directing an unsolicited knife 
in the friend's direction. A similar superstition makes it bad luck to hand 
someone a knife: one is supposed to lay it down on the table and allow the 
recipient to pick it up. Knives in table settings are rounded at the end and no 
sharper than needed: steak knives are brought out for tough meat, and blunter 
knives substituted for fish. And knives may be used only when they are abso- 
lutely necessary. It's rude to use a knife to eat a piece of cake, to bring food to 
your mouth, to mix ingredients ("Stir with a knife, stir up strife"), or to push 
food onto your fork. 


Elias's theory, then, attributes the decline in European violence to a larger 
psychological change (the subtitle of his book is Sociogenetic and Psychoge- 
netic Investigations). He proposed that over a span of several centuries, begin- 
ning in the 11th or 12th and maturing in the 17th and 18th, Europeans 
increasingly inhibited their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences 
of their actions, and took other people's thoughts and feelings into consider- 
ation. A culture of honor — the readiness to take revenge — gave way to a cul- 
ture of dignity — the readiness to control one's emotions. These ideals 
originated in explicit instructions that cultural arbiters gave to aristocrats 
and noblemen, allowing them to differentiate themselves from the villains 
and boors. But they were then absorbed into the socialization of younger and 
younger children until they became second nature. The standards also trick- 
led down from the upper classes to the bourgeoisie that strove to emulate 
them, and from them to the lower classes, eventually becoming a part of the 
culture as a whole. 

Elias helped himself to Freud's structural model of the psyche, in which 
children acquire a conscience (the superego) by internalizing the injunctions 
of their parents when they are too young to understand them. At that point 


the child's ego can apply these injunctions to keep their biological impulses 
(the id) in check. Elias stayed away from Freud's more exotic claims (such 
as the primeval parricide, the death instinct, and the oedipal complex), and 
his psychology is thoroughly modern. In chapter 9 we will look at a faculty of 
the mind that psychologists call self-control, delay of gratification, and shal- 
low temporal discounting and that laypeople call counting to ten, holding 
your horses, biting your tongue, saving for a rainy day, and keeping your 
pecker in your pocket. 27 We will also look at a faculty that psychologists call 
empathy, intuitive psychology, perspective-taking, and theory of mind and 
that laypeople call getting into other people's heads, seeing the world from 
their point of view, walking a mile in their moccasins, and feeling their pain. 
Elias anticipated the scientific study of both of these better angels. 

Critics of Elias have pointed out that all societies have standards of propri- 
ety about sexuality and excretion which presumably grow out of innate emo- 
tions surrounding purity, disgust, and shame. 28 As we will see, the degree to 
which societies moralize these emotions is a major dimension of variation 
across cultures. Though medieval Europe certainly did not lack norms of 
propriety altogether, it seems to have lain at the far end of the envelope of 
cultural possibilities. 

To his credit, Elias leapfrogged academic fashion in not claiming that early 
modern Europeans "invented" or "constructed" self-control. He claimed only 
that they toned up a mental faculty that had always been a part of human 
nature but which the medievals had underused. He repeatedly drove the point 
home with the pronouncement "There is no zero point." 29 As we shall see in 
chapter 9, exactly how people dial their capacity for self-control up or down 
is an interesting topic in psychology. One possibility is that self-control is like 
a muscle, so that if you exercise it with table manners it will be stronger across 
the board and more effective when you have to stop yourself from killing the 
person who just insulted you. Another possibility is that a particular setting 
of the self-control dial is a social norm, like how close you can stand to another 
person or how much of your body has to be covered in public. A third is that 
self-control can be adjusted adaptively according to its costs and benefits in 
the local environment. Self-control, after all, is not an unmitigated good. The 
problem with having too much self-control is that an aggressor can use it to 
his advantage, anticipating that you may hold back from retaliating because 
it's too late to do any good. But if he had reason to believe that you would lash 
out reflexively, consequences be damned, he might treat you with more respect 
in the first place. In that case people might adjust a self-control slider accord- 
ing to the dangerousness of those around them. 

At this point in the story, the theory of the Civilizing Process is incomplete, 
because it appeals to a process that is endogenous to the phenomenon it is 
trying to explain. A decline in violent behavior, it says, coincided with a decline 


in impulsiveness, honor, sexual license, incivility, and boorishness at the din- 
ner table. But this just entangles us in a web of psychological processes. It 
hardly counts as an explanation to say that people behaved less violently 
because they learned to inhibit their violent impulses. Nor can we feel confi- 
dent that people's impulsiveness changed first and that a reduction in violence 
was the result, rather than the other way around. 

But Elias did propose an exogenous trigger to get the whole thing started, 
indeed, two triggers. The first was the consolidation of a genuine Leviathan 
after centuries of anarchy in Europe's feudal patchwork of baronies and fiefs. 
Centralized monarchies gained in strength, brought the warring knights 
under their control, and extended their tentacles into the outer reaches of their 
kingdoms. According to the military historian Quincy Wright, Europe had 
five thousand independent political units (mainly baronies and principalities) 
in the 15th century, five hundred at the time of the Thirty Years' War in the 
early 17th, two hundred at the time of Napoleon in the early 19th, and fewer 
than thirty in 1953. 30 

The consolidation of political units was in part a natural process of agglom- 
eration in which a moderately powerful warlord swallowed his neighbors and 
became a still more powerful warlord. But the process was accelerated by what 
historians call the military revolution: the appearance of gunpowder weapons, 
standing armies, and other expensive technologies of war that could only be 
supported by a large bureaucracy and revenue base. 31 A guy on a horse with 
a sword and a ragtag band of peasants was no match for the massed infantry 
and artillery that a genuine state could put on the battlefield. As the sociolo- 
gist Charles Tilly put it, "States make war and vice-versa." 32 

Turf battles among knights were a nuisance to the increasingly powerful 
kings, because regardless of which side prevailed, peasants were killed and 
productive capacity was destroyed that from the kings' point of view would 
be better off stoking their revenues and armies. And once they got into the 
peace business — "the king's peace," as it was called — they had an incentive 
to do it right. For a knight to lay down his arms and let the state deter his 
enemies was a risky move, because his enemies could see it as a sign of weak- 
ness. The state had to keep up its end of the bargain, lest everyone lose faith 
in its peacekeeping powers and resume their raids and vendettas. 33 

Feuding among knights and peasants was not just a nuisance but a lost 
opportunity. During Norman rule in England, some genius recognized the 
lucrative possibilities in nationalizing justice. For centuries the legal system 
had treated homicide as a tort: in lieu of vengeance, the victim's family would 
demand a payment from the killer's family, known as blood money or wergild 
("man-payment"; the wer is the same prefix as in werewolf "man-wolf"). King 
Henry I redefined homicide as an offense against the state and its metonym, 
the crown. Murder cases were no longer John Doe vs. Richard Roe, but The Crown 
vs. John Doe (or later, in the United States, The People vs. John Doe or The State of 


Michigan vs. John Doe). The brilliance of the plan was that the wergild (often 
the offender's entire assets, together with additional money rounded up from 
his family) went to the king instead of to the family of the victim. Justice was 
administered by roving courts that would periodically visit a locale and hear 
the accumulated cases. To ensure that all homicides were presented to the 
courts, each death was investigated by a local agent of the crown: the coroner . 34 

Once Leviathan was in charge, the rules of the game changed. A man's 
ticket to fortune was no longer being the baddest knight in the area but mak- 
ing a pilgrimage to the king's court and currying favor with him and his 
entourage. The court, basically a government bureaucracy, had no use for 
hotheads and loose cannons, but sought responsible custodians to run its 
provinces. The nobles had to change their marketing. They had to cultivate 
their manners, so as not to offend the king's minions, and their empathy, to 
understand what they wanted. The manners appropriate for the court came 
to be called "courtly" manners or "courtesy." The etiquette guides, with their 
advice on where to place one's nasal mucus, originated as manuals for how to 
behave in the king's court. Elias traces the centuries-long sequence in which 
courtesy percolated down from aristocrats dealing with the court to the elite 
bourgeoisie dealing with the aristocrats, and from them to the rest of the 
middle class. He summed up his theory, which linked the centralization of 
state power to a psychological change in the populace, with a slogan: Warriors 
to courtiers. 

The second exogenous change during the later Middle Ages was an economic 
revolution. The economic base of the feudal system was land and the peasants 
who worked it. As real estate agents like to say, land is the one thing they can't 
make more of. In an economy based on land, if someone wants to improve his 
standard of living, or for that matter maintain it during a Malthusian popula- 
tion expansion, his primary option is to conquer the neighboring lot. In the 
language of game theory, competition for land is zero-sum: one player's gain 
is another player's loss. 

The zero-sum nature of the medieval economy was reinforced by a Chris- 
tian ideology that was hostile to any commercial practice or technological 
innovation that might eke more wealth out of a given stock of physical 
resources. As Tuchman explains: 

The Christian attitude toward commerce . . . held that money was evil, that 
according to St. Augustine "Business is in itself an evil," that profit beyond 
a minimum necessary to support the dealer was avarice, that to make money 
out of money by charging interest on a loan was the sin of usury, that buy- 
ing goods wholesale and selling them unchanged at a higher retail price 
was immoral and condemned by canon law, that, in short, St. Jerome's dic- 
tum was final: "A man who is a merchant can seldom if ever please God ." 35 


As my grandfather would have put it, "Goyische kopp!" — gentile head. 
Jews were brought in as moneylenders and middlemen but were just as often 
persecuted and expelled. The era's economic backwardness was enforced by 
laws which decreed that prices should be fixed at a "just" level reflecting the 
cost of the raw material and the value of the labor added to it. "To ensure that 
no one gained an advantage over anyone else," Tuchman explains, "commer- 
cial law prohibited innovation in tools or techniques, underselling below a 
fixed price, working late by artificial light, employing extra apprentices or wife 
and under-age children, and advertising of wares or praising them to the 
detriment of others." 36 This is a recipe for a zero-sum game, and leaves preda- 
tion as the only way people could add to their wealth. 

A positive-sum game is a scenario in which agents have choices that can 
improve the lots of both of them at the same time. A classic positive-sum game 
in everyday life is the exchange of favors, where each person can confer a large 
benefit to another at a small cost to himself or herself. Examples include pri- 
mates who remove ticks from each other's backs, hunters who share meat 
whenever one of them has felled an animal that is too big for him to consume 
on the spot, and parents who take turns keeping each other's children out of 
trouble. As we shall see in chapter 8, a key insight of evolutionary psychology 
is that human cooperation and the social emotions that support it, such as 
sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, and anger, were selected because they allow 
people to flourish in positive-sum games. 37 

A classic positive-sum game in economic life is the trading of surpluses. If 
a farmer has more grain than he can eat, and a herder has more milk than he 
can drink, both of them come out ahead if they trade some wheat for some 
milk. As they say, everybody wins. Of course, an exchange at a single moment 
in time only pays when there is a division of labor. There would be no point 
in one farmer giving a bushel of wheat to another farmer and receiving a 
bushel of wheat in return. A fundamental insight of modern economics is that 
the key to the creation of wealth is a division of labor, in which specialists learn 
to produce a commodity with increasing cost-effectiveness and have the 
means to exchange their specialized products efficiently. One infrastructure 
that allows efficient exchange is transportation, which makes it possible for 
producers to trade their surpluses even when they are separated by distance. 
Another is money, interest, and middlemen, which allow producers to 
exchange many kinds of surpluses with many other producers at many points 
in time. 

Positive-sum games also change the incentives for violence. If you're trad- 
ing favors or surpluses with someone, your trading partner suddenly becomes 
more valuable to you alive than dead. You have an incentive, moreover, to 
anticipate what he wants, the better to supply it to him in exchange for what 
you want. Though many intellectuals, following in the footsteps of Saints 
Augustine and Jerome, hold businesspeople in contempt for their selfishness 


and greed, in fact a free market puts a premium on empathy. 38 A good busi- 
nessperson has to keep the customers satisfied or a competitor will woo them 
away, and the more customers he attracts, the richer he will be. This idea, 
which came to be called donx commerce (gentle commerce), was expressed by 
the economist Samuel Ricard in 1704: 

Commerce attaches [people] to one another through mutual utility. . . . 
Through commerce, man learns to deliberate, to be honest, to acquire man- 
ners, to be prudent and reserved in both talk and action. Sensing the neces- 
sity to be wise and honest in order to succeed, he flees vice, or at least his 
demeanor exhibits decency and seriousness so as not to arouse any adverse 
judgment on the part of present and future acquaintances. 39 

And this brings us to the second exogenous change. Elias noted that in the 
late Middle Ages people began to unmire themselves from technological and 
economic stagnation. Money increasingly replaced barter, aided by the larger 
national territories in which a currency could be recognized. The building of 
roads, neglected since Roman times, resumed, allowing the transport of goods 
to the hinterlands of the country and not just along its coasts and navigable 
rivers. Horse transport became more efficient with the use of horseshoes that 
protected hooves from paving stones and yokes that didn't choke the poor 
horse when it pulled a heavy load. Wheeled carts, compasses, clocks, spinning 
wheels, treadle looms, windmills, and water mills were also perfected in the 
later Middle Ages. And the specialized expertise needed to implement these 
technologies was cultivated in an expanding stratum of craftsmen. The 
advances encouraged the division of labor, increased surpluses, and lubricated 
the machinery of exchange. Life presented people with more positive-sum 
games and reduced the attractiveness of zero-sum plunder. To take advantage 
of the opportunities, people had to plan for the future, control their impulses, 
take other people's perspectives, and exercise the other social and cognitive 
skills needed to prosper in social networks. 

The two triggers of the Civilizing Process — the Leviathan and gentle 
commerce — are related. The positive-sum cooperation of commerce flourishes 
best inside a big tent presided over by a Leviathan. Not only is a state well 
suited to provide the public goods that serve as infrastructure for economic 
cooperation, such as money and roads, but it can put a thumb on the scale on 
which players weigh the relative payoffs of raiding and trading. Suppose a 
knight can either plunder ten bushels of grain from his neighbor or, by expend- 
ing the same amount of time and energy, raise the money to buy five bushels 
from him. The theft option looks pretty good. But if the knight anticipates that 
the state will fine him six bushels for the theft, he'd be left with only four, so 
he's better off with honest toil. Not only do the Leviathan's incentives make 
commerce more attractive, but commerce makes the job of the Leviathan 


easier. If the honest alternative of buying the grain hadn't been available, the 
state would have had to threaten to squeeze ten bushels out of the knight to 
deter him from plundering, which is harder to enforce than squeezing five 
bushels out of him. Of course, in reality the state's sanctions may be the threat 
of physical punishment rather than a fine, but the principle is the same: it's 
easier to deter people from crime if the lawful alternative is more appealing. 

The two civilizing forces, then, reinforce each other, and Elias considered 
them to be part of a single process. The centralization of state control and its 
monopolization of violence, the growth of craft guilds and bureaucracies, the 
replacement of barter with money, the development of technology, the 
enhancement of trade, the growing webs of dependency among far-flung indi- 
viduals, all fit into an organic whole. And to prosper within that whole, one 
had to cultivate faculties of empathy and self-control until they became, as he 
put it, second nature. 

Indeed the "organic" analogy is not far-fetched. The biologists John May- 
nard Smith and Eors Szathmary have argued that an evolutionary dynamic 
similar to the Civilizing Process drove the major transitions in the history of 
life. These transitions were the successive emergence of genes, chromosomes, 
bacteria, cells with nuclei, organisms, sexually reproducing organisms, and 
animal societies. 40 In each transition, entities with the capacity to be either 
selfish or cooperative tended toward cooperation when they could be sub- 
sumed into a larger whole. They specialized, exchanged benefits, and devel- 
oped safeguards to prevent one of them from exploiting the rest to the 
detriment of the whole. The journalist Robert Wright sketches a similar arc in 
his book Nonzero, an allusion to positive-sum games, and extends it to the his- 
tory of human societies. 41 In the final chapter of this book I will take a closer 
look at overarching theories of the decline of violence. 

The theory of the Civilizing Process passed a stringent test for a scientific 
hypothesis: it made a surprising prediction that turned out to be true. Back in 
1939 Elias had no access to the statistics of homicide; he worked from narrative 
histories and old books of etiquette. When Gurr, Eisner, Cockburn, and others 
surprised the world of criminology with their graphs showing a decline in kill- 
ings, Elias had the only theory that anticipated it. But with everything else we 
have learned about violence in recent decades, how well does the theory fare? 

Elias himself was haunted by the not-so-civilized behavior of his native 
Germany during World War II, and he labored to explain that "decivilizing 
process" within the framework of his theory. 42 Tie discussed the fitful history 
of German unification and the resulting lack of trust in a legitimate central 
authority. Tie documented the persistence of a militaristic culture of honor 
among its elites, the breakdown of a state monopoly on violence with the rise 
of communist and fascist militias, and a resulting contraction of empathy for 
groups perceived to be outsiders, particularly the Jews. It would be a stretch 


to say that he rescued his theory with these analyses, but perhaps he shouldn't 
have tried. The horrors of the Nazi era did not consist in an upsurge in feud- 
ing among warlords or of citizens stabbing each other over the dinner table, 
but in violence whose scale, nature, and causes are altogether different. In fact 
in Germany during the Nazi years the declining trend for one-on-one homi- 
cides continued (see, for example, figure 3-19). 43 In chapter 8 we will see how 
the compartmentalization of the moral sense, and the distribution of belief 
and enforcement among different sectors of a population, can lead to ideo- 
logically driven wars and genocides even in otherwise civilized societies. 

Eisner pointed out another complication for the theory of the Civilizing 
Process: the decline of violence in Europe and the rise of centralized states 
did not always proceed in lockstep. 44 Belgium and the Netherlands were at 
the forefront of the decline, yet they lacked strong centralized governments. 
When Sweden joined the trend, it wasn't on the heels of an expansion in state 
power either. Conversely, the Italian states were in the rearguard of the decline 
in violence, yet their governments wielded an enormous bureaucracy and 
police force. Nor did cruel punishments, the enforcement method of choice 
among early modern monarchs, reduce violence in the areas where they were 
carried out with the most relish. 

Many criminologists believe that the source of the state's pacifying effect 
isn't just its brute coercive power but the trust it commands among the popu- 
lace. After all, no state can post an informant in every pub and farmhouse to 
monitor breaches of the law, and those that try are totalitarian dictatorships 
that rule by fear, not civilized societies where people coexist through self- 
control and empathy. A Leviathan can civilize a society only when the citizens 
feel that its laws, law enforcement, and other social arrangements are legiti- 
mate, so that they don't fall back on their worst impulses as soon as Leviathan's 
back is turned. 45 This doesn't refute Elias's theory, but it adds a twist. An impo- 
sition of the rule of law may end the bloody mayhem of feuding warlords, but 
reducing rates of violence further, to the levels enjoyed by modern European 
societies, involves a more nebulous process in which certain populations 
accede to the rule of law that has been imposed on them. 

Libertarians, anarchists, and other skeptics of the Leviathan point out that 
when communities are left to their own devices, they often develop norms of 
cooperation that allow them to settle their disputes nonviolently, without laws, 
police, courts, or the other trappings of government. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael 
explains how American whalers thousands of miles from the reach of the law 
dealt with disputes over whales that had been injured or killed by one ship 
and then claimed by another: 

Thus the most vexatious and violent disputes would often arise between 

the fishermen, were there not some written or unwritten, universal, undis- 
puted law applicable to all cases. 


. . . Though no other nation [but Holland] has ever had any written whal- 
ing law, yet the American fishermen have been their own legislators and 
lawyers in this matter. . . . These laws might be engraven on a Queen Anne's 
farthing, or the barb of a harpoon, and worn round the neck, so small are 

I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it. 

II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it. 

Informal norms of this kind have emerged among fishers, farmers, and 
herders in many parts of the world. 46 In Order Without Law. Hozu Neighbors 
Settle Disputes, the legal scholar Robert Ellickson studied a modern American 
version of the ancient (and frequently violent) confrontation between pastoral- 
ists and farmers. In northern California's Shasta County, traditional ranchers 
are essentially cowboys, grazing their cattle in open country, while modern 
ranchers raise cattle in irrigated, fenced ranches. Both kinds of ranchers coex- 
ist with farmers who grow hay, alfalfa, and other crops. Straying cattle occa- 
sionally knock down fences, eat crops, foul streams, and wander onto roads 
where vehicles can hit them. The county is carved into "open ranges," in which 
an owner is not legally liable for most kinds of accidental damage his cattle 
may cause, and "closed ranges," in which he is strictly liable, whether he was 
negligent or not. Ellickson discovered that victims of harm by cattle were loath 
to invoke the legal system to settle the damages. In fact, most of the residents — 
ranchers, farmers, insurance adjustors, even lawyers and judges — held beliefs 
about the applicable laws that were flat wrong. But the residents got along by 
adhering to a few tacit norms. Cattle owners were always responsible for the 
damage their animals caused, whether a range was open or closed; but if the 
damage was minor and sporadic, property owners were expected to "lump 
it." People kept rough long-term mental accounts of who owed what, and the 
debts were settled in kind rather than in cash. (For example, a cattleman whose 
cow damaged a rancher's fence might at a later time board one of the rancher's 
stray cattle at no charge.) Deadbeats and violators were punished with gossip 
and with occasional veiled threats or minor vandalism. In chapter 9 we'll take 
a closer look at the moral psychology behind such norms, which fall into a 
category called equality matching. 47 

As important as tacit norms are, it would be a mistake to think that they 
obviate a role for government. The Shasta County ranchers may not have called 
in Leviathan when a cow knocked over a fence, but they were living in its 
shadow and knew it would step in if their informal sanctions escalated or if 
something bigger were at stake, such as a fight, a killing, or a dispute over 
women. And as we shall see, their current level of peaceful coexistence is itself 
the legacy of a local version of the Civilizing Process. In the 1850s, the annual 
homicide rate of northern California ranchers was around 45 per 100,000, com- 
parable to those of medieval Europe. 48 


I think the theory of the Civilizing Process provides a large part of the 
explanation for the modern decline of violence not only because it predicted 
the remarkable plunge in European homicide but because it makes correct 
predictions about the times and places in the modern era that do not enjoy the 
blessed i-per-ioo,ooo-per-year rate of modern Europe. Two of these rule- 
proving exceptions are zones that the Civilizing Process never fully pene- 
trated: the lower strata of the socioeconomic scale, and the inaccessible or 
inhospitable territories of the globe. And two are zones in which the Civiliz- 
ing Process went into reverse: the developing world, and the 1960s. Let's visit 
them in turn. 


Other than the drop in numbers, the most striking feature of the decline in 
European homicide is the change in the socioeconomic profile of killing. Cen- 
turies ago rich people were as violent as poor people, if not more so. 49 Gentle- 
men would carry swords and would not hesitate to use them to avenge insults. 
They often traveled with retainers who doubled as bodyguards, so an affront 
or a retaliation for an affront could escalate into a bloody street fight between 
gangs of aristocrats (as in the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet). The economist 
Gregory Clark examined records of deaths of English aristocrats from late 
medieval times to the Industrial Revolution. I've plotted his data in figure 3-7, 
which shows that in the 14th and 15th centuries an astonishing 26 percent of 

FIGURE 3-7. Percentage of deaths of English male aristocrats from violence, 1330-1829 

Source : Data from Clark, 2007a, p. 122; data representing a range of years are plotted at the midpoint 
of the range. 


male aristocrats died from violence — about the same rate that we saw in figure 
2-2 as the average for preliterate tribes. The rate fell into the single digits by 
the turn of the 18th century, and of course today it is essentially zero. 

A homicide rate measured in percentage points is still remarkably high, 
and well into the 18th and 19th centuries violence was a part of the lives of 
respectable men, such as Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Boswell quotes 
Samuel Johnson, who presumably had no trouble defending himself with 
words, as saying, "I have beat many a fellow, but the rest had the wit to hold 
their tongues." 50 Members of the upper classes eventually refrained from using 
force against one another, but with the law watching their backs, they reserved 
the right to use it against their inferiors. As recently as 1859 the British author 
of The Habits of a Good Society advised: 

There are men whom nothing but a physical punishment will bring to rea- 
son, and with these we shall have to deal at some time of our lives. A lady 
is insulted or annoyed by an unwieldy bargee, or an importunate and dis- 
honest cabman. One well-dealt blow settles the whole matter. ... A man 
therefore, whether he aspires to be a gentleman or not, should learn to 
box. . . . There are but few rules for it, and those are suggested by common 
sense. Strike out, strike straight, strike suddenly; keep one arm to guard, 
and punish with the other. Two gentlemen never fight; the art of boxing is 
brought into use in punishing a stronger and more imprudent man of a class 
beneath your own. 51 

The European decline of violence was spearheaded by a decline in elite 
violence. Today statistics from every Western country show that the over- 
whelming majority of homicides and other violent crimes are committed by 
people in the lowest socioeconomic classes. One obvious reason for the shift 
is that in medieval times, one achieved high status through the use of force. 
The journalist Steven Sailer recounts an exchange from early-20th-century 
England: "A hereditary member of the British House of Lords complained that 
Prime Minister Lloyd George had created new Lords solely because they were 
self-made millionaires who had only recently acquired large acreages. When 
asked, 'How did your ancestor become a Lord?' he replied sternly, 'With the 
battle-ax, sir, with the battle-ax!' " 52 

As the upper classes were putting down their battle-axes, disarming their 
retinues, and no longer punching out bargees and cabmen, the middle classes 
followed suit. They were domesticated not by the royal court, of course, but 
by other civilizing forces. Employment in factories and businesses forced 
employees to acquire habits of decorum. An increasingly democratic political 
process allowed them to identify with the institutions of government and 
society, and it opened up the court system as a way to pursue their grievances. 


And then came an institution that was introduced in London in 1828 by Sir 
Robert Peel and soon named after him, the municipal police, or bobbies. 53 

The main reason that violence correlates with low socioeconomic status 
today is that the elites and the middle class pursue justice with the legal system 
while the lower classes resort to what scholars of violence call "self-help." This 
has nothing to do with Women Who Love Too Much or Chicken Soup for the Soul; 
it is another name for vigilantism, frontier justice, taking the law into your 
own hands, and other forms of violent retaliation by which people secured 
justice in the absence of intervention by the state. 

In an influential article called "Crime as Social Control," the legal scholar 
Donald Black argued that most of what we call crime is, from the point of view 
of the perpetrator, the pursuit of justice. 54 Black began with a statistic that has 
long been known to criminologists: only a minority of homicides (perhaps as 
few as 10 percent) are committed as a means to a practical end, such as killing 
a homeowner during a burglary, a policeman during an arrest, or the victim 
of a robbery or rape because dead people tell no tales. 55 The most common 
motives for homicide are moralistic: retaliation after an insult, escalation of a 
domestic quarrel, punishing an unfaithful or deserting romantic partner, and 
other acts of jealousy, revenge, and self-defense. Black cites some cases from 
a database in Houston: 

One in which a young man killed his brother during a heated discussion about 
the latter's sexual advances toward his younger sisters, another in which a man 
killed his wife after she "dared" him to do so during an argument about which 
of several bills they should pay, one where a woman killed her husband during 
a quarrel in which the man struck her daughter (his stepdaughter), one in 
which a woman killed her 21-year-old son because he had been "fooling around 
with homosexuals and drugs," and two others in which people died from 
wounds inflicted during altercations over the parking of an automobile. 

Most homicides. Black notes, are really instances of capital punishment, 
with a private citizen as the judge, jury, and executioner. It's a reminder that 
the way we conceive of a violent act depends on which of the corners of the 
violence triangle (see figure 2-1) we stake out as our vantage point. Consider 
a man who is arrested and tried for wounding his wife's lover. From the point 
of view of the law, the aggressor is the husband and the victim is society, which 
is now pursuing justice (an interpretation, recall, captured in the naming of 
court cases, such as The People vs. John Doe). From the point of view of the lover, 
the aggressor is the husband, and he is the victim; if the husband gets off on 
an acquittal or mistrial or plea bargain, there is no justice, as the lover is 
enjoined from pursuing revenge. And from the point of view of the husband, 
he is the victim (of cuckoldry), the lover is the aggressor, and justice has been 


done— but now he is the victim of a second act of aggression, in which the 
state is the aggressor and the lover is an accomplice. Black notes: 

Those who commit murder . . . often appear to be resigned to their fate at 
the hands of the authorities; many wait patiently for the police to arrive; 
some even call to report their own crimes. ... In cases of this kind, indeed, 
the individuals involved might arguably be regarded as martyrs. Not unlike 
workers who violate a prohibition to strike — knowing they will go to jail — 
or others who defy the law on grounds of principle, they do what they think 
is right, and willingly suffer the consequences . 56 

These observations overturn many dogmas about violence. One is that 
violence is caused by a deficit of morality and justice. On the contrary, violence 
is often caused by a surfeit of morality and justice, at least as they are conceived 
in the minds of the perpetrators. Another dogma, cherished among psychol- 
ogists and public health researchers, is that violence is a kind of disease . 57 But 
this public health theory of violence flouts the basic definition of a disease, 
namely a malfunction that causes suffering to the individual . 58 Most violent 
people insist there is nothing wrong with them; it's the victim and bystanders 
who think there's a problem. A third dubious belief about violence is that 
lower-class people engage in it because they are financially needy (for exam- 
ple, stealing food to feed their children) or because they are expressing rage 
against society. The violence of a lower-class man may indeed express rage, 
but it is aimed not at society but at the asshole who scraped his car and dissed 
him in front of a crowd. 

In an article inspired by Black called "The Decline of Elite Homicide," the 
criminologist Mark Cooney shows that many lower-status people — the poor, 
the uneducated, the unmarried, and members of minority groups — are effec- 
tively stateless. Some make a living from illegal activities like drug dealing, 
gambling, selling stolen goods, and prostitution, so they cannot file lawsuits 
or call the police to enforce their interests in business disputes. In that regard 
they share their need for recourse to violence with certain high - status people, 
namely dealers in contraband such as Mafiosi, drug kingpins, and Prohibition 

But another reason for their statelessness is that lower-status people and 
the legal system often live in a condition of mutual hostility. Black and Cooney 
report that in dealing with low-income African Americans, police "seem to 
vacillate between indifference and hostility, . . . reluctant to become involved 
in their affairs but heavy handed when they do so ." 59 Judges and prosecutors 
too "tend to be . . . uninterested in the disputes of low-status people, typically 
disposing of them quickly and, to the parties involved, with an unsatisfactory 
penal emphasis ." 60 Here is a Harlem police sergeant quoted by the journalist 
Heather MacDonald: 


Last weekend, a known neighborhood knucklehead hit a kid. In retaliation, the 
kid's whole family shows up at the perp's apartment. The victim's sisters kick 
in the apartment door. But the knucklehead's mother beat the shit out of the 
sisters, leaving them lying on the floor with blood coming from their mouths. 
The victim's family was looking for a fight: I could charge them with trespass. 
The perp's mother is eligible for assault three for beating up the opposing fam- 
ily. But all of them were street shit, garbage. They will get justice in their own 
way. I told them: "We can all go to jail, or we can call it a wash." Otherwise, you'd 
have six bodies in prison for BS behavior. The district attorney would have been 
pissed. And none of them would ever show up in court. 61 

Not surprisingly, lower-status people tend not to avail themselves of the 
law and may be antagonistic to it, preferring the age-old alternative of self-help 
justice and a code of honor. The police sergeant's compliment about the kind 
of people he deals with in his precinct was returned by the young African 
Americans interviewed by the criminologist Deanna Wilkinson: 

Reggie: The cops working my neighborhood don't belong working in my 
neighborhood. How you gonna send white cops to a black neighborhood 
to protect and serve? You can't do that cause all they gonna see is the 
black faces that's committing the crimes. They all look the same. The ones 
that's not committing crimes looks like the niggas that is committing 
crimes and everybody is getting harassed. 

Dexter: They make worser cause niggas [the police] was fuckin' niggas [youth] 
up. They crooked theyself, you know what I mean? Them niggas [the 
police officers] would run up on the drug spot, take my drugs, they'll sell 
that shit back on the street, so they could go rush-knock someone else. 
Quentin [speaking of a man who had shot his father]: There's a chance he could walk, 
what am I supposed to do? ... If I lose my father, and they don't catch this 
guy. I'm gonna get his family. That's the way it works out here. That's the way 

all this shit out here works. If you can't get him, get them Everybody grow 

up with the shit, they want respect, they want to be the man. 62 

The historical Civilizing Process, in other words, did not eliminate violence, 
but it did relegate it to the socioeconomic margins. 


The Civilizing Process spread not only downward along the socioeconomic 
scale but outward across the geographic scale, from a Western European epi- 
center. We saw in figure 3-3 that England was the first to pacify itself, followed 
closely by Germany and the Low Countries. Figure 3-8 plots this outward 
ripple on maps of Europe in the late 19th and early 21st centuries. 


FIGURE 3-8. Geography of homicide in Europe, late 19th and early 21st centuries 

Sources: Late 19th century (1880-1900): Eisner, 2003. The subdivision of Eisner's ">5.0 per 100,000" range into 5-10 and 10-30 was done in consultation with 
Eisner. Data for Montenegro based on data for Serbia. Early 21st century (mostly 2004): United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2009; data were selected 
as in note 66. 


In the late 1800s, Europe had a peaceable bull's-eye in the northern indus- 
trialized countries (Great Britain, France, Germany, Denmark, and the Low 
Countries), bordered by slightly stroppier Ireland, Austria-Hungary, and Fin- 
land, surrounded in turn by still more violent Spain, Italy, Greece, and the 
Slavic countries. Today the peaceable center has swelled to encompass all of 
Western and Central Europe, but a gradient of lawlessness extending to East- 
ern Europe and the mountainous Balkans is still visible. 

There are gradients within each of these countries as well: the hinterlands 
and mountains remained violent long after the urbanized and densely farmed 
centers had calmed down. Clan warfare was endemic to the Scottish highlands 
until the 18th century, and to Sardinia, Sicily, Montenegro, and other parts of 
the Balkans until the 20th. 63 It's no coincidence that the two blood-soaked clas- 
sics with which I began this book — the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric 
poems — came from peoples that lived in rugged hills and valleys. 

What about the rest of the world? Though most European countries have 
kept statistics on homicide for a century or more, the same cannot be said for 
the other continents. Even today the police-blotter tallies that departments 
report to Interpol are often unreliable and sometimes incredible. Many gov- 
ernments feel that their degree of success in keeping their citizens from mur- 
dering each other is no one else's business. And in parts of the developing 
world, warlords dress up their brigandage in the language of political libera- 
tion movements, making it hard to draw a line between casualties in a civil 
war and homicides from organized crime. 64 

With those limitations in mind, let's take a peek at the distribution of homi- 
cide in the world today. The most reliable data come from the World Health 
Organization (WHO), which uses public health records and other sources to 
estimate the causes of death in as many countries as possible. 65 The UN Office 
on Drugs and Crime has supplemented these data with high and low estimates 
for every country in the world. Figure 3-9 plots these numbers for 2004 (the 
year covered in the office's most recent report) on a map of the world. 66 The 
good news is that the median national homicide rate among the world's coun- 
tries in this dataset is 6 per 100,000 per year. The overall homicide rate for the 
entire world, ignoring the division into countries, was estimated by the WHO 
in 2000 as 8.8 per 100,000 per year. 67 Both estimates compare favorably to the 
triple-digit values for pre-state societies and the double-digit values for medi- 
eval Europe. 

The map shows that Western and Central Europe make up the least violent 
region in the world today. Among the other states with credible low rates of 
homicide are those carved out of the British Empire, such as Australia, New 
Zealand, Fiji, Canada, the Maldives, and Bermuda. Another former British 
colony defies the pattern of English civility; we will examine this strange 
country in the next section. 

Several Asian countries have low homicide rates as well, particularly those 


of, Department of Statistics, Ministry of the Interior, 2000. 


that have adopted Western models, such as Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. 
Also reporting a low homicide rate is China (2.2 per 100,000). Even if we take 
the data from this secretive state at face value, in the absence of time-series data 
we have no way of knowing whether it is best explained by millennia of cen- 
tralized government or by the authoritarian nature of its current regime. Estab- 
lished autocracies (including many Islamic states) keep close tabs on their 
citizens and punish them surely and severely when they step out of line; that's 
why we call them "police states." Not surprisingly, they tend to have low rates 
of violent crime. But I can't resist an anecdote which suggests that China, like 
Europe, underwent a civilizing process over the long term. Elias noted that 
knife taboos, which accompanied the reduction of violence in Europe, have 
been taken one step further in China. For centuries in China, knives have been 
reserved for the chef in the kitchen, where he cuts the food into bite-sized 
pieces. Knives are banned from the dining table altogether. "The Europeans 
are barbarians," Elias quotes them as saying. "They eat with swords." 68 

What about the other parts of the world? The criminologist Gary LaFree 
and the sociologist Orlando Patterson have shown that the relationship 
between crime and democratization is an inverted U. Established democracies 
are relatively safe places, as are established autocracies, but emerging democ- 
racies and semi-democracies (also called anocracies) are often plagued by 
violent crime and vulnerable to civil war, which sometimes shade into each 
other. 69 The most crime-prone regions in the world today are Russia, sub- 
Saharan Africa, and parts of Latin America. Many of them have corrupt police 
forces and judicial systems which extort bribes out of criminals and victims 
alike and dole out protection to the highest bidder. Some, like Jamaica (33.7), 
Mexico (11.1), and Colombia (52.7), are racked by drug-funded militias that 
operate beyond the reach of the law. Over the past four decades, as drug traf- 
ficking has increased, their rates of homicide have soared. Others, like Russia 
(29.7) and South Africa (69), may have undergone decivilizing processes in the 
wake of the collapse of their former governments. 

The decivilizing process has also racked many of the countries that switched 
from tribal ways to colonial rule and then suddenly to independence, such as 
those in sub-Saharan Africa and Papua New Guinea (15.2). In her article "From 
Spears to M-i6s," the anthropologist Polly Wiessner examines the historical 
trajectory of violence among the Enga, a New Guinean tribal people. She 
begins with an excerpt from the field notes of an anthropologist who worked 
in their region in 1939: 

We were now in the heart of the Lai Valley, one of the most beautiful in New 
Guinea, if not in the world. Everywhere were fine well-laid out garden plots, 
mostly of sweet potato and groves of casuarinas. Well-cut and graded roads 
traversed the countryside, and small parks . . . dotted the landscape, which 
resembled a huge botanical garden. 


She compares it to her own diary entry from 2004: 

The Lai Valley is a virtual wasteland — as the Enga say, "cared for by the 
birds, snakes, and rats." Houses are burned to ash, sweet potato gardens 
overgrown with weeds, and trees razed to jagged stumps. In the high forest, 
warfare rages on, fought by "Rambos" with shotguns and high-powered 
rifles taking the lives of many. By the roadside where markets bustled just 
a few years before, there is an eerie emptiness. 70 

The Enga were never what you could call a peaceable people. One of their 
tribes, the Mae Enga, are represented by a bar in figure 2-3: it shows that they 
killed each other in warfare at an annual rate of about 300 per 100,000, dwarfing 
the worst rates we have been discussing in this chapter. All the usual Hobbesian 
dynamics played out: rape and adultery, theft of pigs and land, insults, and of 
course, revenge, revenge, and more revenge. Still, the Enga were conscious of 
the waste of war, and some of the tribes took steps, intermittently successful, to 
contain it. For example, they developed Geneva-like norms that outlawed war 
crimes such as mutilating bodies or killing negotiators. And though they some- 
times were drawn into destructive wars with other villages and tribes, they 
worked to control the violence within their own communities. Every human 
society is faced with a conflict of interest between the younger men, who seek 
dominance (and ultimately mating opportunities) for themselves, and the older 
men, who seek to minimize internecine damage within their extended families 
and clans. The Enga elders forced obstreperous young men into "bachelor cults," 
which encouraged them to control their vengeful impulses with the help of 
proverbs like "The blood of a man does not wash off easily" and "You live long 
if you plan the death of a pig, but not if you plan the death of a person." 71 And 
consonant with the other civilizing elements in their culture, they had norms 
of propriety and cleanliness, which Wiessner described to me in an e-mail: 

The Enga cover themselves with raincapes when they defecate, so as not to' 
offend anybody, even the sun. For a man to stand by the road, turn his back 
and pee is unthinkably crude. They wash their hands meticulously before 
they cook food; they are extremely modest about covering genitals, and so 
on. Not so great with snot. 

Most important, the Enga took well to the Pax Australiana beginning in 
the late 1930s. Over the span of two decades warfare plummeted, and many 
of the Enga were relieved to set aside violence to settle their disputes and "fight 
in courts" instead of on the battlefield. 

When Papua New Guinea gained independence in 1975, violence among the 
Enga shot back up. Government officials doled out land and perks to their clans- 
men, provoking intimidation and revenge from the clans left in the cold. Young 


men left the bachelor cults for schools that prepared them for nonexistent jobs, 
then joined "Raskol" criminal gangs that were unrestrained by elders and the 
norms they had imposed. They were attracted by alcohol, drugs, nightclubs, 
gambling, and firearms (including M-i6s and AK-47S) and went on rampages 
of rape, plunder, and arson, not unlike the knights of medieval Europe. The state 
was weak: its police were untrained and outgunned, and its corrupt bureaucracy 
was incapable of maintaining order. In short, the governance vacuum left by 
instant decolonization put the Papuans through a decivilizing process that left 
them with neither traditional norms nor modern third-party enforcement. 
Similar degenerations have occurred in other former colonies in the developing 
world, forming eddies in the global flow toward lower rates of homicide. 

It's easy for a Westerner to think that violence in lawless parts of the world 
is intractable and permanent. But at various times in history communities have 
gotten so fed up with the bloodshed that they have launched what criminolo- 
gists call a civilizing offensive. 72 Unlike the unplanned reductions in homicide 
that came about as a by-product of the consolidation of states and the promo- 
tion of commerce, a civilizing offensive is a deliberate effort by sectors of a 
community (often women, elders, or clergy) to tame the Rambos and Raskols 
and restore civilized life. Wiessner reports on a civilizing offensive in the Enga 
province in the 2000s. 73 Church leaders tried to lure young men from the thrill 
of gang life with exuberant sports, music, and prayer, and to substitute an ethic 
of forgiveness for the ethic of revenge. Tribal elders, using the cell phones that 
had been introduced in 2007, developed rapid response units to apprise one 
another of disputes and rush to the trouble spot before the fighting got out of 
control. They reined in the most uncontrollable firebrands in their own clans, 
sometimes with brutal public executions. Community governments were set 
up to restrict gambling, drinking, and prostitution. And a newer generation 
was receptive to these efforts, having seen that "the lives of Rambos are short 
and lead nowhere." Wiessner quantified the results: after having increased for 
decades, the number of killings declined significantly from the first half of the 
2000s to the second. As we shall see, it was not the only time and place in which 
a civilizing offensive has paid off. 


Violence is as American as cherry pie. 

— H. Rap Brown 

The Black Panther spokesman may have mixed up his fruits, but he did express 
a statistically valid generalization about the United States. Among Western 
democracies, the United States leaps out of the homicide statistics. Instead of 
clustering with kindred peoples like Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany, 
it hangs out with toughs like Albania and Uruguay, close to the median rate 


FIGURE 3-io. Homicide rates in the United States and England, 1900-2000 

Sources: Graph from Monkkonen, 2001, pp. 171, 185-88; see also Zahn & McCall, 1999, p. 12. Note that 
Monkkonen's U.S. data differ slightly from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports data plotted in figure 
3-18 and cited in this chapter. 

for the entire world. Not only has the homicide rate for the United States not 
wafted down to the levels enjoyed by every European and Commonwealth 
democracy, but it showed no overall decline during the 20th century, as we 
see in figure 3-10. (For the 20th-century graphs, I will use a linear rather than 
a logarithmic scale.) 

The American homicide rate crept up until 1933, nose-dived in the 1930s and 
1940s, remained low in the 1950s, and then was launched skyward in 1962, bounc- 
ing around in the stratosphere in the 1970s and 1980s before returning to earth 
starting in 1992. The upsurge in the 1960s was shared with every other Western 
democracy, and I'll return to it in the next section. But why did the United States 
start the century with homicide rates so much higher than England's, and never 
close the gap? Could it be a counterexample to the generalization that countries 
with good governments and good economies enjoy a civilizing process that 
pushes their rate of violence downward? And if so, what is unusual about the 
United States? In newspaper commentaries one often reads pseudo-explanations 
like this: "Why is America more violent? It's our cultural predisposition to vio- 
lence." 74 How can we find our way out of this logical circle? It's not just that 
America is gun-happy. Even if you subtract all the killings with firearms and 
count only the ones with rope, knives, lead pipes, wrenches, candlesticks, and 
so on, Americans commit murders at a higher rate than Europeans. 75 

Europeans have always thought America is uncivilized, but that is only 
partly true. A key to understanding American homicide is to remember that 



the United States was originally a plural noun, as in these United States. When 
it comes to violence, the United States is not a country; it's three countries. 
Figure 3-11 is a map that plots the 2007 homicide rates for the fifty states, using 
the same shading scheme as the world map in figure 3-9. 

The shading shows that some of the United States are not so different from 
Europe after all. They include the aptly named New England states, and a band 
of northern states stretching toward the Pacific (Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, 
Montana, and the Pacific Northwest states), together with Utah. The band 
reflects not a common climate, since Oregon's is nothing like Vermont's, but 
rather the historical routes of migration, which tended to go from east to west. 
This ribbon of peaceable states, with homicide rates of less than 3 per 100,000 
per year, sits at the top of a gradient of increasing homicide from north to south. 
At the southern end we find states like Arizona (7.4) and Alabama (8.9), which 
compare unfavorably to Uruguay (5.3), Jordan (6.9), and Grenada (4.9). We also 
find Louisiana (14.2), whose rate is close to that of Papua New Guinea (15.2). 76 

A second contrast is less visible on the map. Louisiana's homicide rate is 
higher than those of the other southern states, and the District of Columbia 
(a barely visible black speck) is off the scale at 30.8, in the range of the most dan- 
gerous Central American and southern African countries. These jurisdictions 
are outliers mainly because they have a high proportion of African Americans. 
The current black-white difference in homicide rates within the United States 
is stark. Between 1976 and 2005 the average homicide rate for white Americans 
was 4.8, while the average rate for black Americans was ^ 6 -gT 7 It's not just that 
blacks get arrested and convicted more often, which would suggest that the race 
gap might be an artifact of racial profiling. The same gap appears in anonymous 
surveys in which victims identify the race of their attackers, and in surveys in 
which people of both races recount their own history of violent offenses. 78 By 
the way, though the southern states have a higher percentage of African Amer- 
icans than the northern states, the North-South difference is not a by-product 
of the white-black difference. Southern whites are more violent than northern 
whites, and southern blacks are more violent than northern blacks. 79 

So while northern Americans and white Americans are somewhat more 
violent than Western Europeans (whose median homicide rate is 1.4), the gap 
between them is far smaller than it is for the country as a whole. And a little 
digging shows that the United States did undergo a state-driven civilizing 
process, though different regions underwent it at different times and to differ- 
ent degrees. Digging is necessary because for a long time the United States was 
a backwards country when it came to keeping track of homicide. Most homi- 
cides are prosecuted by individual states, not by the federal government, and 
good nationwide statistics weren't compiled until the 1930s. Also, until recently 
"the United States" was a moving target. The lower forty-eight were not fully 
assembled until 1912, and many states were periodically infused with a shot 
of immigrants who changed the demographic profile until they coalesced in 


FIGURE 3-12. Homicide rates in England, 1300-1925, and New England, 1630-1914 

Sources: Data for England: Eisner, 2003. Data for New England: 1630-37, Roth, 2001, p. 55; 1650-1800: 
Roth, 2001, p. 56; 1914: Roth, 2009, p. 388. Roth's estimates have been multiplied by 0.65 to convert 
the rate from per-adults to per-people; see Roth, 2009, p. 495. Data representing a range of years are 
plotted at the midpoint of the range. 

the melting pot. For these reasons, historians of American violence have had 
to make do with shorter time series from smaller jurisdictions. In American 
Homicide Randolph Roth has recently assembled an enormous number of small- 
scale datasets for the three centuries of American history before the national 
statistics were compiled. Though most of the trends are roller coasters rather 
than toboggan runs, they do show how different parts of the country became 
civilized as the anarchy of the frontier gave way — in part — to state control. 

Figure 3-12 superimposes Roth's data from New England on Eisner's com- 
pilation of homicide rates from England. The sky-high point for colonial New 
England represents Roth's Elias-friendly observation that "the era of frontier 
violence, during which the homicide rate stood at over 100 per 100,000 adults 
per year, ended in 1637 when English colonists and their Native American allies 
established their hegemony over New England." After this consolidation of 
state control, the curves for old England and New England coincide uncannily. 

The rest of the Northeast also saw a plunge from triple-digit and high- 
double-digit homicide rates to the single digits typical of the world's countries 
today. The Dutch colony of New Netherland, with settlements from Con- 
necticut to Delaware, saw a sharp decline in its early decades, from 68 to 15 
per 100,000 (figure 3-13). But when the data resume in the 19th century, we 
start to see the United States diverging from the two mother countries. Though 
the more rural and ethnically homogeneous parts of New England (Vermont 
and New Hampshire) continue to hover in the peaceful basement beneath 


FIGURE 3-13. Homicide rates in the northeastern United States, 1636-1900 

Sources: Data from Roth, 2009, whites only. New England: pp. 38, 62. New Netherland: pp. 38, 50. New 
York: p. 185. New Hampshire and Vermont: p. 184. Philadelphia: p. 185. Data representing a range of 
years are plotted at the midpoint of the range. Estimates have been multiplied by 0.65 to convert the 
rate from per-adults to per-people; see Roth, 2009, p. 495. Estimates for "unrelated adults" have been 
multiplied by 1.1 to make them approximately commensurable with estimates for all adults. 

1 in 100,000, the city of Boston became more violent in the middle of the 19th 
century, overlapping cities in former New Netherland such as New York and 

The zigzags for the northeastern cities show two twists in the American 
version of the Civilizing Process. The middling altitude of these lines along the 
homicide scale, down from the ceiling but hovering well above the floor, sug- 
gests that the consolidation of a frontier under government control can bring 
the annual homicide rate down by an order of magnitude or so, from around 
100 per 100,000 to around 10. But unlike what happened in Europe, where the 
momentum continued all the way down to the neighborhood of 1, in America 
the rate usually got stuck in the 5-to-i5 range, where we find it today. Roth sug- 
gests that once an effective government has pacified the populace from the 100 
to the 10 range, additional reductions depend on the degree to which people 
accept the legitimacy of the government, its laws, and the social order. Eisner, 
recall, made a similar observation about the Civilizing Process in Europe. 

The other twist on the American version of the Civilizing Process is that in 
many of Roth's mini-datasets, violence increased in the middle decades of the 
19th century. 80 The buildup and aftermath of the Civil War disrupted the social 
balance in many parts of the country, and the northeastern cities saw a wave 
of immigration from Ireland, which (as we have seen) lagged behind England 
in its homicide decline. Irish Americans in the 19th century, like African 


FIGURE 3-14. Homicide rates among blacks and whites in New York and Philadelphia, 


Sources: New York 1797-1845: Roth, 2009, p. 195. New York 1856-85: Average of Roth, 2009, p. 195, and 
Gurr, 1989a, p. 39. New York 1905-53: Gurr, 1989a, p. 39. Philadelphia: 1842-94: Roth, 2009, p. 195. 
Philadelphia 1907-28: Lane, 1989, p. 72 (15-year averages). Philadelphia, 1950s: Gurr, 1989a, pp. 38-39. 
Roth's estimates have been multiplied by 0.65 to convert the rate from per-adults to per-people; see 
Roth, 2009, p. 495. His estimates for Philadelphia were, in addition, multiplied by 1.1 and 1.5 to com- 
pensate, respectively, for unrelated versus all victims and indictments versus homicides (Roth, 2009, 
p. 492). Data representing a range of years are plotted at the midpoint of the range. 

Americans in the 20th, were more pugnacious than their neighbors, in large 
part because they and the police did not take each other seriously. 81 But in the 
second half of the 19th century police forces in American cities expanded, 
became more professional, and began to serve the criminal justice system 
rather than administering their own justice on the streets with their night- 
sticks. In major northern cities well into the 20th century, homicide rates for 
white Americans declined. 82 

But the second half of the 19th century also saw a fateful change. The graphs 
I have shown so far plot the rates for American whites. Figure 3-14 shows the 
rates for two cities in which black-on-black and white-on-white homicides can 
be distinguished. The graph reveals that the racial disparity in American 
homicide has not always been with us. In the northeastern cities, in New Eng- 
land, in the Midwest, and in Virginia, blacks and whites killed at similar rates 
throughout the first half of the 19th century. Then a gap opened up, and it 
widened even further in the 20th century, when homicides among African 
Americans skyrocketed, going from three times the white rate in New York 
in the 1850s to almost thirteen times the white rate a century later. 83 A probe 
into the causes, including economic and residential segregation, could fill 
another book. But one of them, as we have seen, is that communities of 


lower-income African Americans were effectively stateless, relying on a cul- 
ture of honor (sometimes called "the code of the streets") to defend their inter- 
ests rather calling in the law. 84 

The first successful English settlements in America were in New England and 
Virginia, and a comparison of figure 3-13 and figure 3-15 might make you 
think that in their first century the two colonies underwent similar civilizing 
processes. Until, that is, you read the numbers on the vertical axis. They show 
that the graph for the Northeast runs from 0.1 to 100, while the graph for the 
Southeast runs from 1 to 1,000, ten times higher. Unlike the black-white gap, 
the North-South gap has deep roots in American history. The Chesapeake 
colonies of Maryland and Virginia started out more violent than New England, 
and though they descended into the moderate range (between 1 and 10 homi- 
cides per 100,000 people per year) and stayed there for most of the 19th century, 
other parts of the settled South bounced around in the low 10-to-ioo range, 
such as the Georgia plantation counties shown on the graph. Many remote 
and mountainous regions, such as the Georgia backcountry and Tennessee- 
Kentucky border, continued to float in the uncivilized 100s, some of them well 
into the 19th century. 

Why has the South had such a long history of violence? The most sweeping 
answer is that the civilizing mission of government never penetrated the 

FIGURE 3-15. Homicide rates in the southeastern United States, 1620-1900 

Sources : Data from Roth, 2009, whites only. Virginia (Chesapeake): pp. 39, 84. Virginia (Chesapeake 
and Shenandoah): p. 201. Georgia: p. 162. Tennessee-Kentucky: pp. 336-37. Zero value for Virginia, 
1838, plotted as 1 since the log of o is undefined. Estimates have been multiplied by 0.65 to convert 
the rate from per-adults to per-people; see Roth, 2009, p. 495. 


American South as deeply as it had the Northeast, to say nothing of Europe. 
The historian Pieter Spierenburg has provocatively suggested that "democracy 
came too early" to America.® 5 In Europe, first the state disarmed the people 
and claimed a monopoly on violence, then the people took over the apparatus 
of the state. In America, the people took over the state before it had forced them 
to lay down their arms — which, as the Second Amendment famously affirms, 
they reserve the right to keep and bear. In other words Americans, and espe- 
cially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed on to a social con- 
tract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use 
of force. In much of American history, legitimate force was also wielded by 
posses, vigilantes, lynch mobs, company police, detective agencies, and Pinker- 
tons, and even more often kept as a prerogative of the individual. 

This power sharing, historians have noted, has always been sacred in the 
South. As Eric Monkkonen puts it, in the 19th century "the South had a delib- 
erately weak state, eschewing things such as penitentiaries in favor of local, 
personal violence." 86 Homicides were treated lightly if the killing was deemed 
"reasonable," and "most killings ... in the rural South were reasonable, in the 
sense that the victim had not done everything possible to escape from the 
killer, that the killing resulted from a personal dispute, or because the killer 
and victim were the kinds of people who kill each other."® 7 

The South's reliance on self-help justice has long been a part of its mythol- 
ogy. It was instilled early in life, such as in the maternal advice given to the 
young Andrew Jackson (the dueling president who claimed to rattle with bul- 
lets when he walked): "Never . . . sue anyone for slander or assault or battery; 
always settle those cases yourself." 88 It was flaunted by pugnacious icons of 
the mountainous South like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, the "King of 
the Wild Frontier." It fueled the war between the prototypical feuding fami- 
lies, the Hatfields and McCoys of the Kentucky-West Virginia backcountry. 
And it not only swelled the homicide statistics for as long as they have been 
recorded, but has left its mark on the southern psyche today.® 9 

Self-help justice depends on the credibility of one's prowess and resolve, 
and to this day the American South is marked by an obsession with credible 
deterrence, otherwise known as a culture of honor. The essence of a culture 
of honor is that it does not sanction predatory or instrumental violence, but 
only retaliation after an insult or other mistreatment. The psychologists Rich- 
ard Nisbett and Dov Cohen have shown that this mindset continues to pervade 
southern laws, politics, and attitudes. 90 Southerners do not outkill northerners 
in homicides carried out during robberies, they found, only in those sparked 
by quarrels. In surveys, southerners do not endorse the use of violence in the 
abstract, but only to protect home and family. The laws of the southern states 
sanction this morality. They give a person wide latitude to kill in defense of 
self or property, put fewer restrictions on gun purchases, allow corporal pun- 
ishment ("paddling") in schools, and specify the death penalty for murder. 


which their judicial systems are happy to carry out. Southern men and women 
are more likely to serve in the military, to study at military academies, and to 
take hawkish positions on foreign policy. 

In a series of ingenious experiments, Nisbett and Cohen also showed that 
honor looms large in the behavior of individual southerners. In one study, 
they sent fake letters inquiring about jobs to companies all over the country. 
Half of them contained the following confession: 

There is one thing I must explain, because I feel I must be honest and I want 
no misunderstandings. I have been convicted of a felony, namely manslaugh- 
ter. You will probably want an explanation for this before you send me an 
application, so I will provide it. I got into a fight with someone who was 
having an affair with my fiancee. I lived in a small town, and one night this 
person confronted me in front of my friends at the bar. He told everyone 
that he and my fiancee were sleeping together. He laughed at me to my face 
and asked me to step outside if I was man enough. I was young and didn't 
want to back down from a challenge in front of everyone. As we went into 
the alley, he started to attack me. He knocked me down, and he picked up 
a bottle. I could have run away and the judge said I should have, but my 
pride wouldn't let me. Instead I picked up a pipe that was laying in the alley 
and hit him with it. I didn't mean to kill him, but he died a few hours later 
at the hospital. I realize that what I did was wrong. 

The other half contained a similar paragraph in which the applicant con- 
fessed to a felony conviction for grand theft auto, which, he said, he had fool- 
ishly committed to help support his wife and young children. In response to 
the letter confessing to the honor killing, companies based in the South and 
West were more likely than those in the North to send the letter-writer a job 
application, and their replies were warmer in tone. For example, the owner of 
one southern store apologized that she had no jobs available at the time and 

As for your problem of the past, anyone could probably be in the situation 
you were in. It was just an unfortunate incident that shouldn't be held against 
you. Your honesty shows that you are sincere. ... I wish you the best of luck 
for your future. You have a positive attitude and a willingness to work. Those 
are the qualities that businesses look for in an employee. Once you get set- 
tled, if you are near here, please stop in and see us . 91 

No such warmth came from companies based in the North, nor from any 
company when the letter confessed to auto theft. Indeed, northern companies 
were more forgiving of the auto theft than the honor killing; the southern and 
western companies were more forgiving of the honor killing than the auto theft. 


Nisbett and Cohen also captured the southern culture of honor in the lab. 
Their subjects were not bubbas from the bayous but affluent students at the 
University of Michigan who had lived in the South for at least six years. Stu- 
dents were recruited for a psychology experiment on "limited response time 
conditions on certain facets of human judgment" (a bit of gobbledygook to 
hide the real purpose of the study). In the hallway on their way to the lab, the 
students had to pass by an accomplice of the experimenter who was filing 
papers in a cabinet. In half of the cases, when the student brushed past the 
accomplice, he slammed the drawer shut and muttered, "Asshole." Then the 
experimenter (who was kept in the dark as to whether the student had been 
insulted) welcomed the student into the lab, observed his demeanor, gave him 
a questionnaire, and drew a blood sample. The students from the northern 
states, they found, laughed off the insult and behaved no differently from the 
control group who had entered without incident. But the insulted students 
from the southern states walked in fuming. They reported lower self-esteem 
in a questionnaire, and their blood samples showed elevated levels of testos- 
terone and of cortisol, a stress hormone. They behaved more dominantly 
toward the experimenter and shook his hand more firmly, and when approach- 
ing another accomplice in the narrow hallway on their way out, they refused 
to step aside to let him pass. 92 

Is there an exogenous cause that might explain why the South rather than 
the North developed a culture of honor? Certainly the brutality needed to 
maintain a slave economy might have been a factor, but the most violent parts 
of the South were backcountry regions that never depended on plantation 
slavery (see figure 3-15). Nisbett and Cohen were influenced by David Hack- 
ed Fisher's Albion's Seed, a history of the British colonization of the United 
States, and zeroed in on the origins of the first colonists from different parts 
of Europe. The northern states were settled by Puritan, Quaker, Dutch, and 
German farmers, but the interior South was largely settled by Scots-Irish, 
many of them sheepherders, who hailed from the mountainous periphery of 
the British Isles beyond the reach of the central government. Herding, Nisbett 
and Cohen suggest, may have been an exogenous cause of the culture of honor. 
Not only does a herder's wealth lie in stealable physical assets, but those assets 
have feet and can be led away in an eyeblink, far more easily than land can be 
stolen out from under a farmer. Herders all over the world cultivate a hair 
trigger for violent retaliation. Nisbett and Cohen suggest that the Scots-Irish 
brought their culture of honor with them and kept it alive when they took up 
herding in the South's mountainous frontier. Though contemporary southern- 
ers are no longer shepherds, cultural mores can persist long after the ecologi- 
cal circumstances that gave rise to them are gone, and to this day southerners 
behave as if they have to be tough enough to deter livestock rustlers. 

The herding hypothesis requires that people cling to an occupational strat- 
egy for centuries after it has become dysfunctional, but the more general 


theory of a culture of honor does not depend on that assumption. People often 
take up herding in mountainous areas because it's hard to grow crops on 
mountains, and mountainous areas are often anarchic because they are the 
hardest regions for a state to conquer, pacify, and administer. The immediate 
trigger for self-help justice, then, is anarchy, not herding itself. Recall that the 
ranchers of Shasta County have herded cattle for more than a century, yet 
when one of them suffers a minor loss of cattle or property, he is expected to 
"lump it," not lash out with violence to defend his honor. Also, a recent study 
that compared southern counties in their rates of violence and their suitability 
for herding found no correlation when other variables were controlled . 93 

So it's sufficient to assume that settlers from the remote parts of Britain 
ended up in the remote parts of the South, and that both regions were lawless 
for a long time, fostering a culture of honor. We still have to explain why their 
culture of honor is so self-sustaining. After all, a functioning criminal justice 
system has been in place in southern states for some time now. Perhaps honor 
has staying power because the first man who dares to abjure it would be 
heaped with contempt for cowardice and treated as an easy mark. 

The American West, even more than the American South, was a zone of anar- 
chy until well into the 20th century. The cliche of Hollywood westerns that 
"the nearest sheriff is ninety miles away" was the reality in millions of square 
miles of territory, and the result was the other cliche of Hollywood westerns, 
ever-present violence. Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, drinking in American 
popular culture during his cross-country escape with Lolita, savors the 
"ox-stunning fisticuffs" of the cowboy movies: 

There was the mahogany landscape, the florid-faced, blue-eyed roughriders, 
the prim pretty schoolteacher arriving in Roaring Gulch, the rearing horse, 
the spectacular stampede, the pistol thrust through the shivered window- 
pane, the stupendous fist fight, the crashing mountain of dusty old-fashioned 
furniture, the table used as a weapon, the timely somersault, the pinned 
hand still groping for the dropped bowie knife, the grunt, the sweet crash 
of fist against chin, the kick in the belly, the flying tackle; and immediately 
after a plethora of pain that would have hospitalized a Hercules, nothing to 
show but the rather becoming bruise on the bronzed cheek of the warmed-up 
hero embracing his gorgeous frontier bride . 94 

In Violent Land, the historian David Courtwright shows that the Hollywood 
horse operas were accurate in the levels of violence they depicted, if not in 
their romanticized image of cowboys. The life of a cowboy alternated between 
dangerous, backbreaking work and payday binges of drinking, gambling, 
whoring, and brawling. "For the cowboy to become a symbol of the American 
experience required an act of moral surgery. The cowboy as mounted protec- 


tor and risk-taker was remembered. The cowboy as dismounted drunk sleep- 
ing it off on the manure pile behind the saloon was forgotten." 95 

In the American Wild West, annual homicide rates were fifty to several 
hundred times higher than those of eastern cities and midwestern farming 
regions: 50 per 100,000 in Abilene, Kansas, 100 in Dodge City, 229 in Fort Grif- 
fin, Texas, and 1,500 in Wichita. 96 The causes were right out of Hobbes. The 
criminal justice system was underfunded, inept, and often corrupt. "In 1877," 
notes Courtwright, "some five thousand men were on the wanted list in Texas 
alone, not a very encouraging sign of efficiency in law enforcement." 97 Self- 
help justice was the only way to deter horse thieves, cattle rustlers, highway- 
men, and other brigands. The guarantor of its deterrent threat was a reputation 
for resolve that had to be defended at all costs, epitomized by the epitaph on 
a Colorado grave marker: "He Called Bill Smith a Liar." 98 One eyewitness 
described the casus belli of a fight that broke out during a card game in the 
caboose of a cattle train. One man remarked, "I don't like to play cards with a 
dirty deck." A cowboy from a rival company thought he said "dirty neck," 
and when the gunsmoke cleared, one man was dead and three wounded. 99 

It wasn't just cowboy country that developed in Hobbesian anarchy; so did 
parts of the West settled by miners, railroad workers, loggers, and itinerant 
laborers. Here is an assertion of property rights found attached to a post dur- 
ing the California Gold Rush of 1849: 

All and everybody, this is my claim, fifty feet on the gulch, cordin to Clear 
Creek District Law, backed up by shotgun amendments. . . . Any person 
found trespassing on this claim will be persecuted to the full extent of the 
law. This is no monkey tale butt I will assert my rites at the pint of the sicks 
shirter if leagally necessary so taik head and good warning. 100 

Courtwright cites an average annual homicide rate at the time of 83 per 
100,000 and points to "an abundance of other evidence that Gold Rush Cali- 
fornia was a brutal and unforgiving place. Camp Names were mimetic: Gouge 
Eye, Murderers Bar, Cut-Throat Gulch, Graveyard Flat. There was a Hangtown, 
a Helltown, a Whiskeytown, and a Gomorrah, though, interestingly, no 
Sodom." 101 Mining boom towns elsewhere in the West also had annual homi- 
cide rates in the upper gallery: 87 per 100,000 in Aurora, Nevada; 105 in Lead- 
ville, Colorado; 116 in Bodie, California; and a whopping 24,000 (almost one 
in four) in Benton, Wyoming. 

In figure 3-16 I've plotted the trajectory of western violence, using snapshots 
of annual homicide rates that Roth provides for a given region at two or more 
times. The curve for California shows a rise around the 1849 Gold Rush, but 
then, together with that of the southwestern states, it shows the signature of 
the Civilizing Process: a greater-than-tenfold decline in homicide rates, from 
the range of 100 to 200 per 100,000 people to the range of 5 to 15 (though, as in 


FIGURE 3-16. Homicide rates in the southwestern United States and California, 1830-1914 

Sources: Data from Roth, 2009, whites only. California (estimates): pp. 183, 360, 404. California ranch- 
ing counties: p. 355. Southwest, 1850 (estimate): p. 354. Southwest, 1914 (Arizona, Nevada, and New 
Mexico): p. 404. Estimates have been multiplied by 0.65 to convert the rate from per-adults to per- 
people; see Roth, 2009, p. 495. 

the South, the rates did not continue to fall into the is and 2s of Europe and 
New England). I've included the decline for the California ranching counties, 
like those studied by Ellickson, to show how their current norm-governed 
coexistence came only after a long period of lawless violence. 

So at least five of the major regions of the United States — the Northeast, the 
middle Atlantic states, the coastal South, California, and the Southwest — 
underwent civilizing processes, but at different times and to different extents. 
The decline of violence in the American West lagged that in the East by two 
centuries and spanned the famous 1890 announcement of the closing of the 
American frontier, which symbolically marked the end of anarchy in the 
United States. 

Anarchy was not the only cause of the mayhem in the Wild West and other 
violent zones in expanding America such as laborers' camps, hobo villages, 
and Chinatowns (as in, "Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown"). Courtwright shows 
that the wildness was exacerbated by a combination of demography and evo- 
lutionary psychology. These regions were peopled by young, single men who 
had fled impoverished farms and urban ghettos to seek their fortune in the 
harsh frontier. The one great universal in the study of violence is that most of 
it is committed by fifteen-to-thirty-year-old men. 10 - Not only are males the 
more competitive sex in most mammalian species, but with Homo sapiens a 


man's position in the pecking order is secured by reputation, an investment 
with a lifelong payout that must be started early in adulthood. 

The violence of men, though, is modulated by a slider: they can allocate 
their energy along a continuum from competing with other men for access to 
women to wooing the women themselves and investing in their children, a 
continuum that biologists sometimes call "cads versus dads." 103 In a social 
ecosystem populated mainly by men, the optimal allocation for an individual 
man is at the "cad" end, because attaining alpha status is necessary to beat 
away the competition and a prerequisite to getting within wooing distance of 
the scarce women. Also favoring cads is a milieu in which women are more 
plentiful but some of the men can monopolize them. In these settings it can 
pay to gamble with one's life because, as Daly and Wilson have noted, "any 
creature that is recognizably on track toward complete reproductive failure 
must somehow expend effort, often at risk of death, to try to improve its pres- 
ent life trajectory." 104 The ecosystem that selects for the "dad" setting is one 
with an equal number of men and women and monogamous matchups 
between them. In those circumstances, violent competition offers the men no 
reproductive advantages, but it does threaten them with a big disadvantage: 
a man cannot support his children if he is dead. 

Another biological contribution to frontier violence was neurobiological 
rather than sociobiological, namely the ubiquity of liquor. Alcohol interferes 
with synaptic transmission throughout the cerebrum, especially in the pre- 
frontal cortex (see figure 8-3), the region responsible for self-control. An ine- 
briated brain is less inhibited sexually, verbally, and physically, giving us 
idioms like beer goggles, roaring drunk, and Dutch courage. Many studies have 
shown that people with a tendency toward violence are more likely to act on 
it when they are under the influence of alcohol. 105 

The West was eventually tamed not just by flinty-eyed marshals and 
hanging judges but by an influx of women. 106 The Hollywood westerns' "prim 
pretty schoolteacher[s] arriving in Roaring Gulch" captures a historical real- 
ity. Nature abhors a lopsided sex ratio, and women in eastern cities and farms 
eventually flowed westward along the sexual concentration gradient. Widows, 
spinsters, and young single women sought their fortunes in the marriage 
market, encouraged by the lonely men themselves and by municipal and com- 
mercial officials who became increasingly exasperated by the degeneracy of 
their western hellholes. As the women arrived, they used their bargaining 
position to transform the West into an environment better suited to their inter- 
ests. They insisted that the men abandon their brawling and boozing for mar- 
riage and family life, encouraged the building of schools and churches, and 
shut down saloons, brothels, gambling dens, and other rivals for the men's 
attention. Churches, with their coed membership, Sunday morning discipline, 
and glorification of norms on temperance, added institutional muscle to the 
women's civilizing offensive. Today we guffaw at the Women's Christian 


Temperance Union (with its ax-wielding tavern terrorist Carrie Nation) and 
at the Salvation Army, whose anthem, according to the satire, includes the 
lines "We never eat cookies 'cause cookies have yeast / And one little bite turns 
a man to a beast." But the early feminists of the temperance movement were 
responding to the very real catastrophe of alcohol-fueled bloodbaths in male- 
dominated enclaves. 

The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem 
as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern 
criminology. A famous study that tracked a thousand low-income Boston 
teenagers for forty-five years discovered that two factors predicted whether a 
delinquent would go on to avoid a life of crime: getting a stable job, and mar- 
rying a woman he cared about and supporting her and her children. The effect 
of marriage was substantial: three-quarters of the bachelors, but only a third 
of the husbands, went on to commit more crimes. This difference alone cannot 
tell us whether marriage keeps men away from crime or career criminals are 
less likely to get married, but the sociologists Robert Sampson, John Laub, and 
Christopher Wimer have shown that marriage really does seem to be a pacify- 
ing cause. When they held constant all the factors that typically push men into 
marriage, they found that actually getting married made a man less likely to 
commit crimes immediately thereafter . 107 The causal pathway has been pithily 
explained by Johnny Cash: Because you're mine, I walk the line. 

An appreciation of the Civilizing Process in the American West and rural 
South helps to make sense of the American political landscape today. Many 
northern and coastal intellectuals are puzzled by the culture of their red state 
compatriots, with their embrace of guns, capital punishment, small govern- 
ment, evangelical Christianity, "family values," and sexual propriety. Their 
opposite numbers are just as baffled by the blue staters' timidity toward crim- 
inals and foreign enemies, their trust in government, their intellectualized 
secularism, and their tolerance of licentiousness. This so-called culture war, 
I suspect, is the product of a history in which white America took two differ- 
ent paths to civilization. The North is an extension of Europe and continued 
the court- and commerce-driven Civilizing Process that had been gathering 
momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture 
of honor that sprang up in the anarchic parts of the growing country, balanced 
by their own civilizing forces of churches, families, and temperance. 


But when you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out . . . in. 
— John Lennon, "Revolution 1 " 

For all the lags and mismatches between the historical trajectories of the 
United States and Europe, they did undergo one trend in synchrony: their 


rates of violence did a U-turn in the 1960s. 108 Figures 3-1 through 3-4 show 
that European countries underwent a bounce in homicide rates that brought 
them back to levels they had said goodbye to a century before. And figure 3-10 
shows that in the 1960s the homicide rate in America went through the roof. 
After a three-decade free fall that spanned the Great Depression, World War 
II, and the Cold War, Americans multiplied their homicide rate by more than 
two and a half, from a low of 4.0 in 1957 to a high of 10.2 in 1980. 109 The upsurge 
included every other category of major crime as well, including rape, assault, 
robbery, and theft, and lasted (with ups and downs) for three decades. The 
cities got particularly dangerous, especially New York, which became a sym- 
bol of the new criminality. Though the surge in violence affected all the races 
and both genders, it was most dramatic among black men, whose annual 
homicide rate had shot up by the mid-1980s to 72 per ioo,ooo. 110 

The flood of violence from the 1960s through the 1980s reshaped American 
culture, the political scene, and everyday life. Mugger jokes became a staple 
of comedians, with mentions of Central Park getting an instant laugh as a 
well-known death trap. New Yorkers imprisoned themselves in their apart- 
ments with batteries of latches and deadbolts, including the popular "police 
lock," a steel bar with one end anchored in the floor and the other propped up 
against the door. The section of downtown Boston not far from where I now 
live was called the Combat Zone because of its endemic muggings and stab- 
bings. Urbanites quit other American cities in droves, leaving burned-out cores 
surrounded by rings of suburbs, exurbs, and gated communities. Books, mov- 
ies, and television series used intractable urban violence as their backdrop, 
including Little Murders, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, Escape from New York, Fort 
Apache the Bronx, Hill Street Blues, and Bonfire of the Vanities. Women enrolled 
in self-defense courses to learn how to walk with a defiant gait, to use their 
keys, pencils, and spike heels as weapons, and to execute karate chops or jujitsu 
throws to overpower an attacker, role-played by a volunteer in a Michelin- 
man-tire suit. Red-bereted Guardian Angels patrolled the parks and the tran- 
sit system, and in 1984 Bernhard Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, became 
a folk hero for shooting four young muggers in a New York subway car. A fear 
of crime helped elect decades of conservative politicians, including Richard 
Nixon in 1968 with his "Law and Order" platform (overshadowing the Viet- 
nam War as a campaign issue), George H. W. Bush in 1988 with his insinuation 
that Michael Dukakis, as governor of Massachusetts, had approved a prison 
furlough program that had released a rapist, and many senators and congress- 
men who promised to "get tough on crime." Though the popular reaction was 
overblown — far more people are killed every year in car accidents than in 
homicides, especially among those who don't get into arguments with young 
men in bars — the sense that violent crime had multiplied was not a figment 
of their imaginations. 

The rebounding of violence in the 1960s defied every expectation. The decade 


was a time of unprecedented economic growth, nearly full employment, levels 
of economic equality for which people today are nostalgic, historic racial prog- 
ress, and the blossoming of government social programs, not to mention medical 
advances that made victims more likely to survive being shot or knifed. Social 
theorists in 1962 would have happily bet that these fortunate conditions would 
lead to a continuing era of low crime. And they would have lost their shirts. 

Why did the Western world embark on a three-decade binge of crime from 
which it has never fully recovered? This is one of several local reversals of the 
long-term decline of violence that I will examine in this book. If the analysis 
is on the right track, then the historical changes I have been invoking to explain 
the decline should have gone into reverse at the time of the surges. 

An obvious place to look is demographics. The 1940s and 1950s, when crime 
rates hugged the floor, were the great age of marriage. Americans got married 
in numbers not seen before or since, which removed men from the streets and 
planted them in suburbs. 111 One consequence was a bust in violence. But the 
other was a boom in babies. The first baby boomers, born in 1946, entered their 
crime-prone years in 1961; the ones born in the peak year, 1954, entered in 1969. 
A natural conclusion is that the crime boom was an echo of the baby boom. 
Unfortunately, the numbers don't add up. If it were just a matter of there being 
more teenagers and twenty-somethings who were committing crimes at their 
usual rates, the increase in crime from i960 to 1970 would have been 13 percent, 
not 135 percent. 112 Young men weren't simply more numerous than their pre- 
decessors; they were more violent too. 

Many criminologists have concluded that the 1960s crime surge cannot be 
explained by the usual socioeconomic variables but was caused in large part 
by a change in cultural norms. Of course, to escape the logical circle in which 
people are said to be violent because they live in a violent culture, it's neces- 
sary to identify an exogenous cause for the cultural change. The political 
scientist James Q. Wilson has argued that demographics were an important 
trigger after all, not because of the absolute numbers of young people but 
because of their relative numbers. He makes the point by commenting on a 
quotation from the demographer Norman Ryder: 

“There is a perennial invasion of barbarians who must somehow be civilized 
and turned into contributors to fulfillment of the various functions requisite 
to societal survival." That "invasion" is the coming of age of a new genera- 
tion of young people. Every society copes with this enormous socializa- 
tion process more or less successfully, but occasionally that process is 
literally swamped by a quantitative discontinuity in the number of persons 
involved. ... In 1950 and still in i960 the "invading army" (those aged four- 
teen to twenty-four) were outnumbered three to one by the size of the 
"defending army" (those aged twenty-five to sixty-four). By 1970 the ranks 


of the former had grown so fast that they were only outnumbered two to 

one by the latter, a state of affairs that had not existed since 1910." 3 

Subsequent analyses showed that this explanation is not, by itself, satisfac- 
tory. Age cohorts that are larger than their predecessors do not, in general, 
commit more crimes." 4 But I think Wilson was on to something when he 
linked the 1960s crime boom to a kind of intergenerational decivilizing pro- 
cess. In many ways the new generation tried to push back against the eight- 
century movement described by Norbert Elias. 

The baby boomers were unusual (I know, we baby boomers are always say- 
ing we're unusual) in sharing an emboldening sense of solidarity, as if their 
generation were an ethnic group or a nation. (A decade later it was preten- 
tiously referred to as "Woodstock Nation.") Not only did they outnumber the 
older generation, but thanks to new electronic media, they felt the strength of 
their numbers. The baby boomers were the first generation to grow up with 
television. And television, especially in the three-network era, allowed them 
to know that other baby boomers were sharing their experiences, and to know 
that the others knew that they knew. This common knowledge, as economists 
and logicians call it, gave rise to a horizontal web of solidarity that cut across 
the vertical ties to parents and authorities that had formerly isolated young 
people from one another and forced them to kowtow to their elders." 5 Much 
like a disaffected population that feels its strength only when it assembles at 
a rally, baby boomers saw other young people like themselves in the audience 
of The Ed Sullivan Show grooving on the Rolling Stones and knew that every 
other young person in America was grooving at the same time, and knew that 
the others knew that they knew. 

The baby boomers were bonded by another new technology of solidarity, 
first marketed by an obscure Japanese company called Sony: the transistor 
radio. The parents of today who complain about the iPods and cell phones that 
are soldered onto the ears of teenagers forget that their own parents made the 
same complaint about them and their transistor radios. I can still remember 
the thrill of tuning in to signals from New York radio stations bouncing off 
the late-night ionosphere into my bedroom in Montreal, listening to Motown 
and Dylan and the British invasion and psychedelia and feeling that some- 
thing was happening here, but Mr. Jones didn't know what it was. 

A sense of solidarity among fifteen-to-thirty-year-olds would be a menace 
to civilized society even in the best of times. But this decivilizing process was 
magnified by a trend that had been gathering momentum throughout the 
20th century. The sociologist Cas Wouters, a translator and intellectual heir 
of Elias, has argued that after the European Civilizing Process had run its 
course, it was superseded by an informalizing process. The Civilizing Process 
had been a flow of norms and manners from the upper classes downward. 


But as Western countries became more democratic, the upper classes became 
increasingly discredited as moral paragons, and hierarchies of taste and man- 
ners were leveled. The informalization affected the way people dressed, as 
they abandoned hats, gloves, ties, and dresses for casual sportswear. It affected 
the language, as people started to address their friends with first names 
instead of Mr. and Mrs. and Miss. And it could be seen in countless other ways 
in which speech and demeanor became less mannered and more spontane- 
ous. 116 The stuffy high-society lady, like the Margaret Dumont character in 
the Marx Brothers movies, became a target of ridicule rather than emulation. 

After having been steadily beaten down by the informalizing process, the 
elites then suffered a second hit to their legitimacy. The civil rights movement 
had exposed a moral blot on the American establishment, and as critics shone 
a light on other parts of society, more stains came into view. Among them were 
the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the pervasiveness of poverty, the mistreat- 
ment of Native Americans, the many illiberal military interventions, particu- 
larly the Vietnam War, and later the despoliation of the environment and the 
oppression of women and homosexuals. The stated enemy of the Western 
establishment, Marxism, gained prestige as it made inroads in third-world 
''liberation" movements, and it was increasingly embraced by bohemians and 
fashionable intellectuals. Surveys of popular opinion from the 1960s through 
the 1990s showed a plummeting of trust in every social institution. 117 

The leveling of hierarchies and the harsh scrutiny of the power structure 
were unstoppable and in many ways desirable. But one of the side effects was 
to undermine the prestige of aristocratic and bourgeois lifestyles that had, 
over the course of several centuries, become less violent than those of the 
working class and underclass. Instead of values trickling down from the court, 
they bubbled up from the street, a process that was later called "proletarian- 
ization" and "defining deviancy down."” 8 

These currents pushed against the civilizing tide in ways that were cele- 
brated in the era's popular culture. The backsliding, to be sure, did not origi- 
nate in the two prime movers of Elias's Civilizing Process. Government control 
did not retreat into anarchy, as it had in the American West and in newly 
independent third-world countries, nor did an economy based on commerce 
and specialization give way to feudalism and barter. But the next step in 
Elias's sequence — the psychological change toward greater self-control and 
interdependence — came under steady assault in the counterculture of the 
generation that came of age in the 1960s. 

A prime target was the inner governor of civilized behavior, self-control. 
Spontaneity, self-expression, and a defiance of inhibitions became cardinal 
virtues. "If it feels good, do it," commanded a popular lapel button. Do It was 
the title of a book by the political agitator Jerry Rubin. "Do It 'Til You're Satis- 
fied (Whatever It Is)" was the refrain of a popular song by BT Express. The 
body was elevated over the mind: Keith Richards boasted, "Rock and roll is 


music from the neck downwards." And adolescence was elevated over adult- 
hood: "Don't trust anyone over thirty," advised the agitator Abbie Hoffman; 
"Hope I die before I get old," sang The Who in "My Generation." Sanity was 
denigrated, and psychosis romanticized, in movies such as A Fine Madness, 
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, King of Hearts, and Outrageous. And then of 
course there were the drugs. 

Another target of the counterculture was the ideal that individuals should 
be embedded in webs of dependency that obligate them to other people in 
stable economies and organizations. If you wanted an image that contradicted 
this ideal as starkly as possible, it might be a rolling stone. Originally from a 
song by Muddy Waters, the image resonated with the times so well that it lent 
itself to three icons of the culture: the rock group, the magazine, and the famous 
song by Bob Dylan (in which he taunts an upper-class woman who has become 
homeless). "Tune in, turn on, drop out," the motto of onetime Harvard psy- 
chology instructor Timothy Leary, became a watchword of the psychedelia 
movement. The idea of coordinating one's interests with others in a job was 
treated as selling out. As Dylan put it: 

Well, I try my best 

To be just like I am. 

But everybody wants you 

To be just like them. 

They say sing while you slave and I just get bored. 

I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more. 

Elias had written that the demands of self-control and the embedding of the 
self into webs of interdependence were historically reflected in the develop- 
ment of timekeeping devices and a consciousness of time: "This is why tenden- 
cies in the individual so often rebel against social time as represented by his 
or her super-ego, and why so many people come into conflict with themselves 
when they wish to be punctual."” 9 In the opening scene of the 1969 movie Easy 
Rider, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda conspicuously toss their wristwatches 
into the dirt before setting off on their motorcycles to find America. That same 
year, the first album by the band Chicago (when they were known as the Chi- 
cago Transit Authority) contained the lyrics "Does anybody really know what 
time it is? Does anybody really care? If so I can't imagine why." All this made 
sense to me when I was sixteen, and so I discarded my own Timex. When my 
grandmother saw my naked wrist, she was incredulous: "How can you be a 
mensch without a zager?" She ran to a drawer and pulled out a Seiko she had 
bought during a visit to the 1970 World's Fair in Osaka. I have it to this day. 

Together with self-control and societal connectedness, a third ideal came 
under attack: marriage and family life, which had done so much to domesticate 
male violence in the preceding decades. The idea that a man and a woman 


should devote their energies to a monogamous relationship in which they 
raise their children in a safe environment became a target of howling ridicule. 
That life was now the soulless, conformist, consumerist, materialist, ticky- 
tacky, plastic, white-bread, Ozzie aiid Harriet suburban wasteland. 

I don't remember anyone in the 1960s blowing his nose into a tablecloth, 
but popular culture did celebrate the flouting of standards of cleanliness, 
propriety, and sexual continence. The hippies were popularly perceived as 
unwashed and malodorous, which in my experience was a calumny. But there's 
no disputing that they rejected conventional standards of grooming, and an 
enduring image from Woodstock was of naked concertgoers frolicking in the 
mud. One could trace the reversal of conventions of propriety on album cov- 
ers alone (figure 3-17). There was The Who Sell Out, with a sauce-dribbling 
Roger Daltrey immersed in a bath of baked beans; the Beatles' Yesterday and 
Today, with the lovable moptops adorned with chunks of raw meat and decap- 
itated dolls (quickly recalled); the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet, with a photo 
of a filthy public toilet (originally censored); and Who's Next, in which the four 
musicians are shown zipping up their flies while walking away from a urine- 
spattered wall. The flouting of propriety extended to famous live perfor- 
mances, as when Jimi Hendrix pretended to copulate with his amplifier at the 
Monterey Pop Festival. 

Throwing away your wristwatch or bathing in baked beans is, of course, a 
far cry from committing actual violence. The 1960s were supposed to be the 
era of peace and love, and so they were in some respects. But the glorification 
of dissoluteness shaded into an indulgence of violence and then into violence 
itself. At the end of every concert, The Who famously smashed their instru- 
ments to smithereens, which could be dismissed as harmless theater were it 
not for the fact that drummer Keith Moon also destroyed dozens of hotel 
rooms, partly deafened Pete Townshend by detonating his drums onstage, 
beat up his wife, girlfriend, and daughter, threatened to injure the hands of a 
keyboardist of the Faces for dating his ex-wife, and accidentally killed his 

FIGURE 3-17. Flouting conventions of cleanliness 
and propriety in the 1960s 


bodyguard by running over him with his car before dying himself in 1978 of 
the customary drug overdose. 

Personal violence was sometimes celebrated in song, as if it were just 
another form of antiestablishment protest. In 1964 Martha Reeves and the 
Vandellas sang "Summer's here and the time is right for dancing in the street." 
Four years later the Rolling Stones replied that the time was right for fighting 
in the street. As part of their "satanic majesty" and "sympathy for the devil," 
the Stones had a theatrical ten-minute song, "Midnight Rambler," which acted 
out a rape-murder by the Boston Strangler, ending with the lines "I'm gonna 
smash down on your plate-glass window / Put a fist, put a fist through your 
steel-plated door / I'll . . . stick . . . my . . . knife . . . right . . . down . . . your . . . 
throat!" The affectation of rock musicians to treat every thug and serial killer 
as a dashing "rebel" or "outlaw" was satirized in This Is Spinal Tap when the 
band speaks of their plans to write a rock musical based on the life of Jack the 
Ripper. (Chorus: "You're a naughty one. Saucy Jack!") 

Less than four months after Woodstock, the Rolling Stones held a free con- 
cert at the Altamont Speedway in California, for which the organizers had 
hired the Hell's Angels, romanticized at the time as "outlaw brothers of the 
counterculture," to provide security. The atmosphere at the concert (and per- 
haps the 1960s) is captured in this description from Wikipedia: 

A huge circus performer weighing over 350 pounds and hallucinating on 
LSD stripped naked and ran berserk through the crowd toward the stage, 
knocking guests in all directions, prompting a group of Angels to leap from 
the stage and club him unconscious. neededi 

No citation is needed for what happened next, since it was captured in the 
documentary Gimme Shelter. A Hell's Angel beat up the guitarist of Jefferson 
Airplane onstage, Mick Jagger ineffectually tried to calm the increasingly 
obstreperous mob, and a young man in the audience, apparently after pulling 
a gun, was stabbed to death by another Angel. 

When rock music burst onto the scene in the 1950s, politicians and clergymen 
vilified it for corrupting morals and encouraging lawlessness. (An amusing 
video reel of fulminating fogies can be seen in Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall 
of Fame and Museum.) Do we now have to — gulp — admit they were right? 
Can we connect the values of 1960s popular culture to the actual rise in violent 
crimes that accompanied them? Not directly, of course. Correlation is not 
causation, and a third factor, the pushback against the values of the Civilizing 
Process, presumably caused both the changes in popular culture and the 
increase in violent behavior. Also, the overwhelming majority of baby boom- 
ers committed no violence whatsoever. Still, attitudes and popular culture 
surely reinforce each other, and at the margins, where susceptible individuals 


and subcultures can be buffeted one way or another, there are plausible causal 
arrows from the decivilizing mindset to the facilitation of actual violence. 

One of them was a self-handicapping of the criminal justice Leviathan. 
Though rock musicians seldom influence public policy directly, writers and 
intellectuals do, and they got caught up in the Zeitgeist and began to rational- 
ize the new licentiousness. Marxism made violent class conflict seem like a 
route to a better world. Influential thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and Paul 
Goodman tried to merge Marxism or anarchism with a new interpretation of 
Freud that connected sexual and emotional repression to political repression 
and championed a release from inhibitions as part of the revolutionary strug- 
gle. Troublemakers were increasingly seen as rebels and nonconformists, or 
as victims of racism, poverty, and bad parenting. Graffiti vandals were now 
"artists," thieves were "class warriors," and neighborhood hooligans were 
"community leaders." Many smart people, intoxicated by radical chic, did 
incredibly stupid things. Graduates of elite universities built bombs to be set 
off at army social functions, or drove getaway cars while "radicals" shot guards 
during armed robberies. New York intellectuals were conned by Marxobabble- 
spouting psychopaths into lobbying for their release from prison. 120 

In the interval between the onset of the sexual revolution of the early 1960s 
and the rise of feminism in the 1970s, the control of women's sexuality was seen 
as a perquisite of sophisticated men. Boasts of sexual coercion and jealous vio- 
lence appeared in popular novels and films and in the lyrics of rock songs such 
as the Beatles' "Run for Your Life," Neil Young's "Down by the River," Jimi 
Hendrix's "Hey Joe," and Ronnie Hawkins's "Who Do You Love?" 121 It was 
even rationalized in "revolutionary" political writings, such as Eldridge Cleav- 
er's bestselling 1968 memoir Soul on Ice, in which the Black Panther leader wrote: 

Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and 
trampling upon the white man's law, upon his system of values, and that I 
was defiling his women — and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying 
to me because I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the white 
man has used the black woman. I felt I was getting revenge. 122 

Somehow the interests of the women who were defiled in this insurrectionary 
act never figured into his political principles, nor into the critical reaction to 
the book ( New York Times: "Brilliant and revealing"; The Nation: "A remarkable 
book . . . beautifully written"; Atlantic Monthly: "An intelligent and turbulent 
and passionate and eloquent man"). 123 

As the rationalizations for criminality caught the attention of judges and 
legislators, they became increasingly reluctant to put miscreants behind bars. 
Though the civil liberties reform of the era did not lead to nearly as many 
vicious criminals "going free on a technicality" as the Dirty Harry movies 
would suggest, law enforcement was indeed retreating as the crime rate was 


advancing. In the United States from 1962 to 1979, the likelihood that a crime 
would lead to an arrest dropped from 0.32 to 0.18, the likelihood that an 
arrest would lead to imprisonment dropped from 0.32 to 0.14, and the likeli- 
hood that a crime would lead to imprisonment fell from 0.10 to 0.02, a factor 
of five. 124 

Even more calamitous than the return of hoodlums to the street was the 
mutual disengagement between law enforcement and communities, and the 
resulting deterioration of neighborhood life. Offenses against civil order like 
vagrancy, loitering, and panhandling were decriminalized, and minor crimes 
like vandalism, graffiti-spraying, turnstile-jumping, and urinating in public 
fell off the police radar screens. 125 Thanks to intermittently effective antipsy- 
chotic drugs and a change in attitudes toward deviance, the wards of mental 
hospitals were emptied, which multiplied the ranks of the homeless. Shop- 
keepers and citizens with a stake in the neighborhood, who otherwise would 
have kept an eye out for local misbehavior, eventually surrendered to the 
vandals, panhandlers, and muggers and retreated to the suburbs. 

The 1960s decivilizing process affected the choices of individuals as well as 
policymakers. Many young men decided that they ain't gonna work on Mag- 
gie's farm no more and, instead of pursuing a respectable family life, hung out 
in all-male packs that spawned the familiar cycle of competition for dominance, 
insult or minor aggression, and violent retaliation. The sexual revolution, which 
provided men with plentiful sexual opportunities without the responsibilities 
of marriage, added to this dubious freedom. Some men tried to get a piece of 
the lucrative trade in contraband drugs, in which self-help justice is the only 
way to enforce property rights. (The cutthroat market in crack cocaine in the 
late 1980s had a particularly low barrier for entry because doses of the drug 
could be sold in small amounts, and the resulting infusion of teenage crack 
dealers probably contributed to the 25 percent increase in the homicide rate 
between 1985 and 1991.) On top of the violence that accompanies any market 
in contraband, the drugs themselves, together with good old-fashioned alcohol, 
lowered inhibitions and sent sparks onto the tinder. 

The decivilizing effects hit African American communities particularly 
hard. They started out with the historical disadvantages of second-class citi- 
zenship, which left many young people teetering between respectable and 
underclass lifestyles just when the new antiestablishment forces were pushing 
in the wrong direction. They could count on even less protection from the 
criminal justice system than white Americans because of the combination of 
old racism among the police and the new indulgence by the judicial system 
toward crime, of which they were disproportionately the victims. 126 Mistrust 
of the criminal justice system turned into cynicism and sometimes paranoia, 
making self-help justice seem the only alternative. 127 

On top of these strikes came a feature of African American family life first 
pointed out by the sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his famous 1965 


report. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, for which he was initially 
vilified but eventually vindicated. 128 A large proportion (today a majority) of 
black children are born out of wedlock, and many grow up without fathers. 
This trend, already visible in the early 1960s, may have been multiplied by the 
sexual revolution and yet again by perverse welfare incentives that encouraged 
young women to "marry the state" instead of the fathers of their children. 129 
Though I am skeptical of theories of parental influence that say that fatherless 
boys grow up violent because they lack a role model or paternal discipline 
(Moynihan himself, for example, grew up without a father), widespread father- 
lessness can lead to violence for a different reason. 130 All those young men who 
aren't bringing up their children are hanging out with one another competing 
for dominance instead. The mixture was as combustible in the inner city as it 
had been in the cowboy saloons and mining camps of the Wild West, this 
time not because there were no women around but because the women lacked 
the bargaining power to force the men into a civilized lifestyle. 


It would be a mistake to think of the 1960s crime boom as undoing the decline 
of violence in the West, or as a sign that historical trends in violence are cycli- 
cal, yo-yoing up and down from one era to the next. The annual homicide rate 
in the United States at its recent worst — 10.2 per 100,000 in 1980 — was a quar- 
ter of the rate for Western Europe in 1450, a tenth of the rate of the traditional 
Inuit, and a fiftieth of the average rate in nonstate societies (see figure 3-4). 

And even that number turned out to be a high-water mark, not a regular occur- 
rence or a sign of things to come. In 1992 a strange thing happened. The homicide 
rate went down by almost 10 percent from the year before, and it continued to sink 
for another seven years, hitting 5.7 in 1999, the lowest it had been since 1966. 131 
Even more shockingly, the rate stayed put for another seven years and then 
drooped even further, from 5.7 in 2006 to 4.8 in 2010. The upper line in figure 3-18 
plots the American homicide trend since 1930, including the new lowland we 
have reached in the 21st century. 

The graph also shows the trend for Canada since 1961. Canadians kill at less 
than a third of the rate of Americans, partly because in the 19th century the Mount- 
ies got to the western frontier before the settlers and spared them from having to 
cultivate a violent code of honor. Despite this difference, the ups and downs of 
the Canadian homicide rate parallel those of their neighbor to the south (with a 
correlation coefficient between 1961 and 2009 of 0.85), and it sank almost as much 
in the 1990s: 33 percent, compared to the American decline of 42 percent. 132 

The parallel trajectory of Canada and the United States is one of many sur- 
prises in the great crime decline of the 1990s. The two countries differed in 
their economic trends and in their policies of criminal justice, yet they enjoyed 
similar drops in violence. So did most of the countries of Western Europe. 133 


FIGURE 3-18. Homicide rates in the United States, 1950-2010, and Canada, 1961-2009 
Sources: Data for United States are from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports 1950-2010: U.S. Bureau of 
Justice Statistics, 2009; U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2010b, 2011; Fox & Zawitz, 2007. Data 
for Canada, 1961-2007: Statistics Canada, 2008. Data for Canada, 2008: Statistics Canada, 2010. Data 
for Canada, 2009: K. Harris, "Canada's crime rate falls," Toronto Sun, Jul. 20, 2010. 

Figure 3-19 plots the homicide rates of five major European countries over the 
past century, showing the historical trajectory we have been tracking: a long- 
term decline that lasted until the 1960s, an uptick that began in that tumultu- 
ous decade, and the recent return to more peaceable rates. Every major 
Western European country showed a decline, and though it looked for a while 
as if England and Ireland would be the exceptions, in the 2000s their rates 
dropped as well. 

Not only did people cut down on killing, but they refrained from inflicting 
other kinds of harm. In the United States the rates of every category of major 
crime dropped by about half, including rape, robbery, aggravated assault, 
burglary, larceny, and even auto theft. 1 - 14 The effects were visible not just in the 
statistics but in the fabric of everyday life. Tourists and young urban profes- 
sionals recolonized American downtowns, and crime receded as a major issue 
from presidential campaigns. 

None of the experts had predicted it. Even as the decline was under way, 
the standard opinion was that the rise in crime that had begun in the 1960s 
would even get worse. In a 1995 essay James Q. Wilson wrote: 

Just beyond the horizon, there lurks a cloud that the winds will soon bring 
over us. The population will start getting younger again. By the end of this 
decade there will be a million more people between the ages of fourteen and 



















1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 i960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 

FIGURE 3-19. Homicide rates in five Western European countries, 1900-2009 

Sources: Data from Eisner, 2008, except England, 2009, which is from Walker et al., 2009; population 
estimate from U.K. Office for National Statistics, 2009. 

seventeen than there are now. This extra million will be half male. Six per- 
cent of them will become high-rate, repeat offenders — 30,000 more young 
muggers, killers, and thieves than we have now. Get ready. 135 

The cloud beyond the horizon was joined by purple prose from other talking 
heads on crime. James Alan Fox predicted a "blood bath" by 2005, a crime wave 
that would "get so bad that it [would] make 1995 look like the good old days." 136 
John Dilulio warned of more than a quarter of a million new "super-predators 
on the streets" by 2010 who would make "the Bloods and the Crips look tame 
by comparison." 137 In 1991 the former editor of the Times of London predicted 
that "by the year 2000, New York could be a Gotham City without Batman." 13 ® 
As legendary New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia might have said, "When 
I make a mistake, it's a beaut!" (Wilson was a good sport about it, remarking, 
"Social scientists should never try to predict the future; they have enough 
trouble predicting the past.") The mistake of the murder mavens was to have 
put too much faith in the most recent demographic trends. The crack-fueled 
violence bubble of the late 1980s involved large numbers of teenagers, and the 
population of teenagers was set to grow in the 1990s as an echo of the baby 
boom. But the overall crime-prone cohort, which includes twenty-somethings 
as well as teenagers, actually fell in the 1990s. 139 Even this corrected statistic, 
though, cannot explain the decline of crime in that decade. The age distribu- 
tion of a population changes slowly, as each demographic pig makes its way 


through the population python. But in the 1990s the crime rate lurched down- 
ward for seven straight years and promptly parked itself at its new bottom for 
another nine. As with the takeoff of crime in the 1960s, changes in the rate of 
violence for each age cohort swamped the effect of the size of those cohorts. 

The other usual suspect in explaining crime trends, the economy, did little 
better in explaining this one. Though unemployment went down in the United 
States in the 1990s, it went up in Canada, yet violent crime decreased in Can- 
ada as well. 140 France and Germany also saw unemployment go up while 
violence went down, whereas Ireland and the U.K. saw unemployment go 
down while violence went up. 141 This is not as surprising as it first appears, 
since criminologists have long known that unemployment rates don't correlate 
well with rates of violent crime. 142 (They do correlate somewhat with rates of 
property crime.) Indeed, in the three years after the financial meltdown of 
2008, which caused the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, 
the American homicide rate fell by another 14 percent, leading the criminolo- 
gist David Kennedy to explain to a reporter, "The idea that everyone has 
ingrained into them — that as the economy goes south, crime has to get worse — 
is wrong. It was never right to begin with." 143 

Among economic measures, inequality is generally a better predictor of 
violence than unemployment. 144 But the Gini coefficient, the standard index 
of income inequality, actually rose in the United States from 1990 to 2000, while 
crime was falling, and it had hit its low point in 1968, when crime was soaring. 145 
The problem with invoking inequality to explain changes in violence is that 
while it correlates with violence across states and countries, it does not cor- 
relate with violence over time within a state or country, possibly because the 
real cause of the differences is not inequality per se but stable features of a 
state's governance or culture that affect both inequality and violence. 146 (For 
example, in unequal societies, poor neighborhoods are left without police 
protection and can become zones of violent anarchy.) 

Yet another false lead may be found in the kind of punditry that tries to 
link social trends to the "national mood" following current events. The ter- 
rorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led to enormous political, economic, and 
emotional turmoil, but the homicide rate did not budge in response. 

The 1990s crime decline inspired one of the stranger hypotheses in the study 
of violence. When I told people I was writing a book on the historical decline of 
violence, I was repeatedly informed that the phenomenon had already been 
solved. Rates of violence have come down, they explained to me, because after 
abortion was legalized by the 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision, 
the unwanted children who would ordinarily have grown up to be criminals 
were not born in the first place, because their begrudging or unfit mothers had 
had abortions instead. I first heard of this theory in 2001 when it was proposed 
by the economists John Donohue and Steven Levitt, but it seemed too cute to 


be true. 147 Any hypothesis that comes out of left field to explain a massive social 
trend with a single overlooked event will almost certainly turn out to be wrong, 
even if it has some data supporting it at the time. But Levitt, together with the 
journalist Stephen Dubner, popularized the theory in their bestseller Freako- 
nomics, and now a large proportion of the public believes that crime went down 
in the 1990s because women aborted their crime-fated fetuses in the 1970s. 

To be fair, Levitt went on to argue that Roe v. Wade was just one of four 
causes of the crime decline, and he has presented sophisticated correlational 
statistics in support of the connection. For example, he showed that the hand- 
ful of states that legalized abortion before 1973 were the first to see their crime 
rates go down. 148 But these statistics compare the two ends of a long, hypo- 
thetical, and tenuous causal chain — the availability of legal abortion as the 
first link and the decline in crime two decades later as the last — and ignore 
all the links in between. The links include the assumptions that legal abortion 
causes fewer unwanted children, that unwanted children are more likely to 
become criminals, and that the first abortion-culled generation was the one 
spearheading the 1990s crime decline. But there are other explanations for the 
overall correlation (for example, that the large liberal states that first legalized 
abortion were also the first states to see the rise and fall of the crack epidemic), 
and the intermediate links have turned out to be fragile or nonexistent. 149 

To begin with, the freakonomics theory assumes that women were just as 
likely to have conceived unwanted children before and after 1973, and that the 
only difference was whether the children were born. But once abortion was legal- 
ized, couples may have treated it as a backup method of birth control and may 
have engaged in more unprotected sex. If the women conceived more unwanted 
children in the first place, the option of aborting more of them could leave the 
proportion of unwanted children the same. In fact, the proportion of unwanted 
children could even have increased if women were emboldened by the abortion 
option to have more unprotected sex in the heat of the moment, but then procras- 
tinated or had second thoughts once they were pregnant. That may help explain 
why in the years since 1973 the proportion of children born to women in the most 
vulnerable categories — poor, single, teenage, and African American — did not 
decrease, as the freakonomics theory would predict. It increased, and by a lot. 150 

What about differences among individual women within a crime-prone pop- 
ulation? Here the freakonomics theory would seem to get things backwards. 
Among women who are accidentally pregnant and unprepared to raise a child, 
the ones who terminate their pregnancies are likely to be forward-thinking, 
realistic, and disciplined, whereas the ones who carry the child to term are more 
likely to be fatalistic, disorganized, or immaturely focused on the thought of a 
cute baby rather than an unruly adolescent. Several studies have borne this out. 151 
Young pregnant women who opt for abortions get better grades, are less likely 
to be on welfare, and are more likely to finish school than their counterparts who 
have miscarriages or carry their pregnancies to term. The availability of abortion 


thus may have led to a generation that is more prone to crime because it weeded 
out just the children who, whether through genes or environment, were most 
likely to exercise maturity and self-control. 

Also, the freakonomists' theory about the psychological causes of crime 
comes right out of "Gee, Officer Krupke," when a gang member says of his 
parents, "They didn't wanna have me, but somehow I was had. Leapin' lizards! 
That's why I'm so bad!" And it is about as plausible. Though unwanted chil- 
dren may grow up to commit more crimes, it is more likely that women in 
crime-prone environments have more unwanted children than that unwant- 
edness causes criminal behavior directly. In studies that pit the effects of 
parenting against the effects of the children's peer environment, holding genes 
constant, the peer environment almost always wins. 152 

Finally, if easy abortion after 1973 sculpted a more crime-averse generation, 
the crime decline should have begun with the youngest group and then crept 
up the age brackets as they got older. The sixteen-year-olds of 1993, for exam- 
ple (who were born in 1977, when abortions were in full swing), should have 
committed fewer crimes than the sixteen-year-olds of 1983 (who were born in 
1967, when abortion was illegal). By similar logic, the twenty-two-year-olds of 
1993 should have remained violent, because they were born in pre-Roe 1971. 
Only in the late 1990s, when the first post-Roe generation reached their twen- 
ties, should the twenty-something age bracket have become less violent. In 
fact, the opposite happened. When the first post-Roe generation came of age 
in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they did not tug the homicide statistics down- 
ward; they indulged in an unprecedented spree of mayhem. The crime decline 
began when the older cohorts, born well before Roe, laid down their guns and 
knives, and from them the lower homicide rates trickled down the age scale. 153 

So how can we explain the recent crime decline? Many social scientists have 
tried, and the best that they can come up with is that the decline had multiple 
causes, and no one can be certain what they were, because too many things 
happened at once. 154 Nonetheless, I think two overarching explanations are 
plausible. The first is that the Leviathan got bigger, smarter, and more effec- 
tive. The second is that the Civilizing Process, which the counterculture had 
tried to reverse in the 1960s, was restored to its forward direction. Indeed, it 
seems to have entered a new phase. 

By the early 1990s, Americans had gotten sick of the muggers, vandals, and 
drive-by shootings, and the country beefed up the criminal justice system in 
several ways. The most effective was also the crudest: putting more men behind 
bars for longer stretches of time. The rate of imprisonment in the United States 
was pretty much flat from the 1920s to the early 1960s, and it even declined a 
bit until the early 1970s. But then it shot up almost fivefold, and today more 
than two million Americans are in jail, the highest incarceration rate on the 
planet. 155 That works out to three-quarters of a percent of the entire popidation, 


and a much larger percentage of young men, especially African Americans. 156 
The American imprisonment binge was set off in the 1980s by several develop- 
ments. Among them were mandatory sentencing laws (such as California's 
"Three Strikes and You're Out"), a prison-building boom (in which rural com- 
munities that had formerly shouted "Not in my backyard!" now welcomed the 
economic stimulus), and the War on Drugs (which criminalized possession of 
small amounts of cocaine and other controlled substances). 

Unlike the more gimmicky theories of the crime decline, massive impris- 
onment is almost certain to lower crime rates because the mechanism by which 
it operates has so few moving parts. Imprisonment physically removes the 
most crime-prone individuals from the streets, incapacitating them and sub- 
tracting the crimes they would have committed from the statistics. Incarcera- 
tion is especially effective when a small number of individuals commit a large 
number of crimes. A classic study of criminal records in Philadelphia, for 
example, found that 6 percent of the young male population committed more 
than half the offenses. 157 The people who commit the most crimes expose 
themselves to the most opportunities to get caught, and so they are the ones 
most likely to be skimmed off and sent to jail. Moreover, people who commit 
violent crimes get into trouble in other ways, because they tend to favor instant 
gratification over long-term benefits. They are more likely to drop out of school, 
quit work, get into accidents, provoke fights, engage in petty theft and vandal- 
ism, and abuse alcohol and drugs. 158 A regime that trawls for drug users or 
other petty delinquents will net a certain number of violent people as bycatch, 
further thinning the ranks of the violent people who remain on the streets. 

Incarceration can also reduce violence by the familiar but less direct route 
of deterrence. An ex-convict might think twice about committing another 
crime once he gets out of jail, and the people who know about him might think 
twice about following in his footsteps. But proving that incarceration deters 
people (as opposed to incapacitating them) is easier said than done, because 
the statistics at any time are inherently stacked against it. The regions with 
the highest rates of crime will throw the most people in jail, creating the illu- 
sion that imprisonment increases crime rather than decreasing it. But with 
suitable ingenuity (for example, correlating increases in imprisonment at one 
time with decreases in crime at a later time, or seeing if a court order to reduce 
the prison population leads to a subsequent increase in crime), the deterrence 
effect can be tested. Analyses by Levitt and other statisticians of crime suggest 
that deterrence works. 159 Those who prefer real-world experiments to sophis- 
ticated statistics may take note of the Montreal police strike of 1969. Within 
hours of the gendarmes abandoning their posts, that famously safe city was 
hit with six bank robberies, twelve arsons, a hundred lootings, and two homi- 
cides before the Mounties were called in to restore order. 160 

But the case that the incarceration boom led to the crime decline is far from 
watertight. 161 For one thing, the prison bulge began in the 1980s, hut violence 


did not decline until a decade later. For another, Canada did not go on an 
imprisonment binge, but its violence rate went down too. These facts don't 
disprove the theory that imprisonment mattered, but they force it to make 
additional assumptions, such as that the effect of imprisonment builds up over 
time, reaches a critical mass, and spills over national borders. 

Mass incarceration, even if it does lower violence, introduces problems of 
its own. Once the most violent individuals have been locked up, imprisoning 
more of them rapidly reaches a point of diminishing returns, because each 
additional prisoner become less and less dangerous, and pulling them off the 
streets makes a smaller and smaller dent in the violence rate. 162 Also, since 
people tend to get less violent as they get older, keeping men in prison beyond 
a certain point does little to reduce crime. For all these reasons, there is an 
optimum rate of incarceration. It's unlikely that the American criminal justice 
system will find it, because electoral politics keep ratcheting the incarceration 
rate upward, particularly in jurisdictions in which judges are elected rather 
than appointed. Any candidate who suggests that too many people are going 
to jail for too long will be targeted in an opponent's television ads as "soft on 
crime" and booted out of office. The result is that the United States imprisons 
far more people than it should, with disproportionate harm falling on African 
American communities who have been stripped of large numbers of men. 

A second way in which Leviathan became more effective in the 1990s was 
a ballooning of the police. 163 In a stroke of political genius, President Bill Clin- 
ton undercut his conservative opponents in 1994 by supporting legislation 
that promised to add 100,000 officers to the nation's police forces. Additional 
cops not only nab more criminals but are more noticeable by their presence, 
deterring people from committing crimes in the first place. And many of the 
police earned back their old nickname flatfoots by walking a beat and keeping 
an eye on the neighborhood rather than sitting in cars and awaiting a radio 
call before speeding to a crime scene. In some cities, like Boston, the police were 
accompanied by parole officers who knew the worst troublemakers individu- 
ally and had the power to have them rearrested for the slightest infraction. 164 
In New York, police headquarters tracked neighborhood crime reports obses- 
sively and held captains' feet to the fire if the crime rate in their precinct started 
to drift upward. 165 The visibility of the police was multiplied by a mandate to 
go after nuisance crimes like graffiti, littering, aggressive panhandling, drink- 
ing liquor or urinating in public, and extorting cash from drivers at stoplights 
after a cursory wipe of their windshield with a filthy squeegee. The rationale, 
originally articulated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in their famous 
Broken Windows theory, was that an orderly environment serves as a reminder 
that police and residents are dedicated to keeping the peace, whereas a van- 
dalized and unruly one is a signal that no one is in charge. 166 

Did these bigger and smarter police forces actually drive down crime? 
Research on this question is the usual social science rat's nest of confounded 


variables, but the big picture suggests that the answer is "yes, in part," even 
if we can't pinpoint which of the innovations did the trick. Not only do several 
analyses suggest that something in the new policing reduced crime, but the 
jurisdiction that spent the most effort in perfecting its police. New York City, 
showed the greatest reduction of all. Once the epitome of urban rot. New York 
is now one of America's safest cities, having enjoyed a slide in the crime rate 
that was twice the national average and that continued in the 2000s after the 
decline in the rest of the country had run out of steam. 167 As the criminologist 
Franklin Zimring put it in The Great American Crime Decline, "If the combina- 
tion of more cops, more aggressive policing, and management reforms did 
account for as much as a 35% crime decrease (half the [U.S.] total), it would be 
by far the biggest crime prevention achievement in the recorded history of 
metropolitan policing." 168 

What about Broken Windows policing in particular? Most academics hate 
the Broken Windows theory because it seems to vindicate the view of social 
conservatives (including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani) that violence 
rates are driven by law and order rather than by "root causes" such as poverty 
and racism. And it has been almost impossible to prove that Broken Windows 
works with the usual correlational methods because the cities that imple- 
mented the policy also hired a lot of police at the same time. 169 But an ingenious 
set of studies, recently reported in Science, has supported the theory using the 
gold standard of science: an experimental manipulation and a matched control 

Three Dutch researchers picked an alley in Groningen where Netherland- 
er park their bicycles and attached an advertising flyer to the handlebars of 
each one. The commuters had to detach the flyer before they could ride their 
bikes, but the researchers had removed all the wastebaskets, so they either 
had to carry the flyer home or toss it on the ground. Above the bicycles was a 
prominent sign prohibiting graffiti and a wall that the experimenters had 
either covered in graffiti (the experimental condition) or left clean (the control 
condition). When the commuters were in the presence of the illegal graffiti, 
twice as many of them threw the flyer on the ground — exactly what the Broken 
Windows theory predicted. In other studies, people littered more when they 
saw unreturned shopping carts strewn about, and when they heard illegal 
firecrackers being set off in the distance. It wasn't just harmless infractions 
like littering that were affected. In another experiment, passersby were 
tempted by an addressed envelope protruding from a mailbox with a five-euro 
bill visible inside it. When the mailbox was covered in graffiti or surrounded 
by litter, a quarter of the passersby stole it; when the mailbox was clean, half 
that many did. The researchers argued that an orderly environment fosters a 
sense of responsibility not so much by deterrence (since Groningen police 
rarely penalize litterers) as by the signaling of a social norm: This is the kind 
of place where people obey the rules. 170 


Ultimately, we must look to a change in norms to understand the 1990s crime 
bust, just as it was a change in norms that helped explain the boom three 
decades earlier. Though policing reforms almost certainly contributed to the 
headlong decline in American violence, particularly in New York, remember 
that Canada and Western Europe saw declines as well (albeit not by the same 
amount), and they did not bulk up their prisons or police to nearly the 
same degree. Even some of the hardest-headed crime statisticians have thrown 
up their hands and concluded that much of the explanation must lie in 
difficult-to-quantify cultural and psychological changes. 171 

The Great Crime Decline of the 1990s was part of a change in sensibilities 
that can fairly be called a recivilizing process. To start with, some of the goof- 
ier ideas of the 1960s had lost their appeal. The collapse of communism and a 
recognition of its economic and humanitarian catastrophes took the romance 
out of revolutionary violence and cast doubt on the wisdom of redistributing 
wealth at the point of a gun. A greater awareness of rape and sexual abuse 
made the ethos "If it feels good, do it" seem repugnant rather than liberating. 
And the sheer depravity of inner-city violence — toddlers struck by bullets in 
drive-by shootings, church funerals of teenagers invaded by knife-wielding 
gangs — could no longer be explained away as an understandable response to 
racism or poverty. 

The result was a wave of civilizing offensives. As we will see in chapter 7, one 
positive legacy of the 1960s was the revolutions in civil rights, women's rights, 
children's rights, and gay rights, which began to consolidate power in the 1990s 
as the baby boomers became the establishment. Their targeting of rape, batter- 
ing, hate crimes, gay-bashing, and child abuse reframed law-and-order from a 
reactionary cause to a progressive one, and their efforts to make the home, work- 
place, schools, and streets safer for vulnerable groups (as in the feminist "Take 
Back the Night" protests) made these environments safer for everyone. 

One of the most impressive civilizing offensives of the 1990s came from 
African American communities, who set themselves the task of recivilizing 
their young men. As with the pacifying of the American West a century before, 
much of the moral energy came from women and the church. 172 In Boston a 
team of clergymen led by Ray Elammond, Eugene Rivers, and Jeffrey Brown 
worked in partnership with the police and social service agencies to clamp 
down on gang violence. 173 They leveraged their knowledge of local communi- 
ties to identify the most dangerous gang members and put them on notice that 
the police and community were watching them, sometimes in meetings with 
their gangs, sometimes in meetings with their mothers and grandmothers. 
Community leaders also disrupted cycles of revenge by converging on any 
gang member who had recently been aggrieved and leaning on him to for- 
swear vengeance. The interventions were effective not just because of the 
threat of an arrest but because the external pressure provided the men with 


an “out" that allowed them to back off without losing face, much as two brawl- 
ing men may accede to being pulled apart by weaker interceders. These efforts 
contributed to the "Boston Miracle" of the 1990s in which the homicide rate 
dropped fivefold; it has remained low, with some fluctuations, ever since. 174 

The police and courts, for their part, have been redirecting their use of 
criminal punishment from brute deterrence and incapacitation to the second 
stage of a civilizing process, enhancing the perceived legitimacy of govern- 
ment force. When a criminal justice system works properly, it's not because 
rational actors know that Big Brother is watching them 24/7 and will swoop 
down and impose a cost that will cancel any ill-gotten gain. No democracy 
has the resources or the will to turn society into that kind of Skinner box. Only 
a sample of criminal behavior can ever be detected and punished, and the 
sampling should be fair enough that citizens perceive the entire regime to be 
legitimate. A key legitimator is the perception that the system is set up in such 
a way that a person, and more importantly the person's adversaries, face a 
constant chance of being punished if they break the law, so that they all may 
internalize inhibitions against predation, preemptive attack, and vigilante 
retribution. But in many American jurisdictions, the punishments had been 
so capricious as to appear like misfortunes coming out of the blue rather than 
predictable consequences of proscribed behavior. Offenders skipped proba- 
tion hearings or failed drug tests with impunity, and they saw their peers get 
away with it as well, but then one day, in what they experienced as a stroke of 
bad luck, they were suddenly sent away for years. 

But now judges, working with police and community leaders, are broaden- 
ing their crime-fighting strategy from draconian yet unpredictable punish- 
ments for big crimes to small yet reliable punishments for smaller ones — a 
guarantee, for example, that missing a probation hearing will net the offender 
a few days in jail. 175 The shift exploits two features of our psychology (which 
will be explored in the chapter on our better angels). One is that people — 
especially the people who are likely to get in trouble with the law — steeply 
discount the future, and respond more to certain and immediate punishments 
than to hypothetical and delayed ones. 176 The other is that people conceive of 
their relationships with other people and institutions in moral terms, catego- 
rizing them either as contests of raw dominance or as contracts governed by 
reciprocity and fairness. 177 Steven Aim, a judge who devised a "probation with 
enforcement" program, summed up the reason for the program's success: 
"When the system isn't consistent and predictable, when people are punished 
randomly, they think. My probation officer doesn't like me, or, Someone's 
prejudiced against me, rather than seeing that everyone who breaks a rule is 
treated equally, in precisely the same way." 178 

The newer offensive to tamp down violence also aims to enhance the habits 
of empathy and self-control that are the internal enforcers of the Civilizing Pro- 
cess. The Boston effort was named the TenPoint Coalition after a manifesto with 


ten stated goals, such as to "Promote and campaign for a cultural shift to help 
reduce youth violence within the Black community, both physically and verbally, 
by initiating conversations, introspection and reflection on the thoughts and 
actions that hold us back as a people, individually and collectively." One of the 
programs with which it has joined forces. Operation Ceasefire, was explicitly 
designed by David Kennedy to implement Immanuel Kant's credo that "moral- 
ity predicated on external pressures alone is never sufficient." 179 The journalist 
John Seabrook describes one of its empathy-building events: 

At the one I attended, there was a palpable, almost evangelical desire to 
make the experience transformative for the gangbangers. An older ex-gang 
member named Arthur Phelps, whom everyone called Pops, wheeled a 
thirty-seven-year-old woman in a wheelchair to the center of the room. Her 
name was Margaret Long, and she was paralyzed from the chest down. 
"Seventeen years ago, I shot this woman," Phelps said, weeping. "And I live 
with that every day of my life." Then Long cried out, "And I go to the bath- 
room in a bag," and she snatched out the colostomy bag from inside the 
pocket of her wheelchair and held it up while the young men stared in hor- 
ror. When the final speaker, a street worker named Aaron Pullins III, yelled, 
"Your house is on fire! Your building is burning! You've got to save your- 
selves! Stand up!," three-quarters of the group jumped to their feet, as if they 
had been jerked up like puppets on strings. 180 

The 1990s civilizing offensive also sought to glorify the values of respon- 
sibility that make a life of violence less appealing. Two highly publicized ral- 
lies in the nation's capital, one organized by black men, one by white, affirmed 
the obligation of men to support their children: Louis Farrakhan's Million 
Man March, and a march by the Promise Keepers, a conservative Christian 
movement. Though both movements had unsavory streaks of ethnocentrism, 
sexism, and religious fundamentalism, their historical significance lay in the 
larger recivilizing process they exemplified. In The Great Disruption, the polit- 
ical scientist Francis Fukuyama notes that as rates of violence went down in 
the 1990s, so did most other indicators of social pathology, such as divorce, 
welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy, dropping out of school, sexually 
transmitted disease, and teenage auto and gun accidents. 181 

The recivilizing process of the past two decades is not just a resumption of the 
currents that have swept the West since the Middle Ages. For one thing, unlike 
the original Civilizing Process, which was a by-product of the consolidation of 
states and the growth of commerce, the recent crime decline has largely come 
from civilizing offensives that were consciously designed to enhance people's 
well-being. Also new is a dissociation between the superficial trappings of civ- 
ilization and the habits of empathy and self-control that we care the most about. 


One way in which the 1990s did not overturn the decivilization of the 1960s 
is in popular culture. Many of the popular musicians in recent genres such as 
punk, metal, goth, grunge, gangsta, and hip-hop make the Rolling Stones look 
like the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Hollywood movies are blood- 
ier than ever, unlimited pornography is a mouse-click away, and an entirely 
new form of violent entertainment, video games, has become a major pastime. 
Yet as these signs of decadence proliferated in the culture, violence went down 
in real life. The recivilizing process somehow managed to reverse the tide of 
social dysfunction without turning the cultural clock back to Ozzie and Harriet. 
The other evening I was riding a crowded Boston subway car and saw a 
fearsome-looking young man clad in black leather, shod in jackboots, painted 
with tattoos, and pierced by rings and studs. The other passengers were giv- 
ing him a wide berth when he bellowed, "Isn't anyone going to give up his 
seat for this old woman? She could be your grandmother!" 

The cliche about Generation X, who came of age in the 1990s, was that they 
were media-savvy, ironic, postmodern. They could adopt poses, try on styles, 
and immerse themselves in seedy cultural genres without taking any of them 
too seriously. (In this regard they were more sophisticated than the boomers 
in their youth, who treated the drivel of rock musicians as serious political 
philosophy.) Today this discernment is exercised by much of Western society. 
In his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise, the journalist David Brooks observed that 
many members of the middle class have become "bourgeois bohemians" who 
affect the look of people at the fringes of society while living a thoroughly 
conventional lifestyle. 

Cas Wouters, inspired by conversations with Elias late in his life, suggests 
that we are living through a new phase in the Civilizing Process. This is the 
long-term trend of informalization I mentioned earlier, and it leads to what 
Elias called a "controlled decontrolling of emotional controls" and what Wout- 
ers calls third nature. 182 If our first nature consists of the evolved motives that 
govern life in a state of nature, and our second nature consists of the ingrained 
habits of a civilized society, then our third nature consists of a conscious reflec- 
tion on these habits, in which we evaluate which aspects of a culture's norms 
are worth adhering to and which have outlived their usefulness. Centuries 
ago our ancestors may have had to squelch all signs of spontaneity and indi- 
viduality in order to civilize themselves, but now that norms of nonviolence 
are entrenched, we can let up on particular inhibitions that may be obsolete. 
In this way of thinking, the fact that women show a lot of skin or that men 
curse in public is not a sign of cultural decay. On the contrary, it's a sign that 
they live in a society that is so civilized that they don't have to fear being 
harassed or assaulted in response. As the novelist Robert Howard put it, "Civ- 
ilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can 
be impolite without having their skulls split." Maybe the time has even come 
when I can use a knife to push peas onto my fork. 



Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. 

— Voltaire 

T he world contains a lot of strange museums. There is the Museum of Pez 
Memorabilia in Burlingame, California, which showcases more than five 
hundred of the cartoon-headed candy dispensers. Visitors to Paris have long 
stood in line to see the museum devoted to the city's sewer system. The Dev- 
il's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas, "presents every detail and aspect of 
barbed wire." In Tokyo, the Meguro Museum of Parasitology invites its visi- 
tors to "try to think about parasites without a feeling of fear, and take the time 
to learn about their wonderful world of the Parasites." And then there is the 
Phallological Museum in Husavik, "a collection of over one hundred penises 
and penile parts belonging to almost all the land and sea mammals that can 
be found in Iceland." 

But the museum that I would least like to spend a day in is the Museo della 
Tortura e di Criminologia Medievale in San Gimignano, Italy. 1 According to 
a helpful review in, "The cost is €8,00. Pretty steep for 
a dozen or so small rooms totalling no more than 100-150 items. If you're into 
the macabre, though, you should not pass it by. Originals and reproductions 
of instruments of torture and execution are housed in moodily-lit stone-walled 
rooms. Each item is accompanied by excellent written descriptions in Italian, 
French, and English. No details are spared, including which orifice the device 
was meant for, which limb it was meant to dislocate, who was the usual cus- 
tomer and how the victim would suffer and/or die." 

I think even the most atrocity-jaded readers of recent history would find 
something to shock them in this display of medieval cruelty. There is Judas's 
Cradle, used in the Spanish Inquisition: the naked victim was bound hand 
and foot, suspended by an iron belt around the waist, and lowered onto a 
sharp wedge that penetrated the anus or vagina; when victims relaxed their 
muscles, the point would stretch and tear their tissues. The Virgin of Nurem- 
berg was a version of the iron maiden, with spikes that were carefully 



positioned so as not to transfix the victim's vital organs and prematurely end 
his suffering. A series of engravings show victims hung by the ankles and 
sawn in half from the crotch down; the display explains that this method of 
execution was used all over Europe for crimes that included rebellion, witch- 
craft, and military disobedience. The Pear is a split, spike-tipped wooden knob 
that was inserted into a mouth, anus, or vagina and spread apart by a screw 
mechanism to tear the victim open from the inside; it was used to punish 
sodomy, adultery, incest, heresy, blasphemy, and "sexual union with Satan." 
The Cat's Paw or Spanish Tickler was a cluster of hooks used to rip and shred 
a victim's flesh. Masks of Infamy were shaped like the head of a pig or an ass; 
they subjected a victim both to public humiliation and to the pain of a blade 
or knob forced into their nose or mouth to prevent them from wailing. The 
Heretic's Fork had a pair of sharp spikes at each end: one end was propped 
under the victim's jaw and the other at the base of his neck, so that as his 
muscles became exhausted he would impale himself in both places. 

The devices in the Museo della Tortura are not particularly scarce. Collec- 
tions of medieval torture instruments may also be found in San Marino, 
Amsterdam, Munich, Prague, Milan, and the Tower of London. Illustrations 
of literally hundreds of kinds of torture may be seen in coffee table books like 
Inquisition and Torment in Art, some of them reproduced in figure 4-1. 2 

Torture, of course, is not a thing of the past. It has been carried out in mod- 
ern times by police states, by mobs during ethnic cleansings and genocides, 
and by democratic governments in interrogations and counterinsurgency oper- 
ations, most infamously during the administration of George W. Bush follow- 
ing the 9/11 attacks. But the sporadic, clandestine, and universally decried 
eruptions of torture in recent times cannot be equated with the centuries of 
institutionalized sadism in medieval Europe. Torture in the Middle Ages was 
not hidden, denied, or euphemized. It was not just a tactic by which brutal 
regimes intimidated their political enemies or moderate regimes extracted 
information from suspected terrorists. It did not erupt from a frenzied crowd 
stirred up in hatred against a dehumanized enemy. No, torture was woven into 
the fabric of public life. It was a form of punishment that was cultivated and 
celebrated, an outlet for artistic and technological creativity. Many of the instru- 
ments of torture were beautifully crafted and ornamented. They were designed 
to inflict not just physical pain, as would a beating, but visceral horrors, such 
as penetrating sensitive orifices, violating the bodily envelope, displaying the 
victim in humiliating postures, or putting them in positions where their own 
flagging stamina would increase their pain and lead to disfigurement or death. 
Torturers were the era's foremost experts in anatomy and physiology, using 
their knowledge to maximize agony, avoid nerve damage that might deaden 
the pain, and prolong consciousness for as long as possible before death. When 
the victims were female, the sadism was eroticized: the women were stripped 
naked before being tortured, and their breasts and genitals were often 


FIGURE 4-1. Torture in medieval and early modern 

Sources: Sawing: Held, 1986, p. 47. Cat's Paw: Held, 1986, 
p. 107. Impalement: Held, 1986, p. 141. Burning at the 
stake: Pinker, 2007a. Judas's Cradle: Held, 1986, p. 51. 
Breaking on the wheel: Puppi, 1990, p. 39. 


the targets. Cold jokes made light of the victims' suffering. In France, Judas's 
Cradle was called "The Nightwatch" for its ability to keep a victim awake. A 
victim might be roasted alive inside an iron bull so his screams would come 
out of the bull's mouth, like the bellowing of a beast. A man accused of disturb- 
ing the peace might be forced to wear a Noisemaker's Fife, a facsimile of a flute 
or trumpet with an iron collar that went around his neck and a vise that crushed 
the bones and joints of his fingers. Many torture devices were shaped like ani- 
mals and given whimsical names. 

Medieval Christendom was a culture of cruelty. Torture was meted out by 
national and local governments throughout the Continent, and it was codified 
in laws that prescribed blinding, branding, amputation of hands, ears, noses, 
and tongues, and other forms of mutilation as punishments for minor crimes. 
Executions were orgies of sadism, climaxing with ordeals of prolonged killing 
such as burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, pulling apart by horses, 
impalement through the rectum, disembowelment by winding a man's intes- 
tines around a spool, and even hanging, which was a slow racking and stran- 
gulation rather than a quick breaking of the neck. 3 Sadistic tortures were also 
inflicted by the Christian church during its inquisitions, witch hunts, and reli- 
gious wars. Torture had been authorized by the ironically named Pope Innocent 
IV in 1251, and the order of Dominican monks carried it out with relish. As the 
Inquisition coffee table book notes, under Pope Paul IV (1555-59), the Inquisition 
was "downright insatiable — Paul, a Dominican and one-time Grand Inquisitor, 
was himself a fervent and skilled practitioner of torture and atrocious mass 
murders, talents for which he was elevated to sainthood in 1712." 4 

Torture was not just a kind of rough justice, a crude attempt to deter violence 
with the threat of greater violence. Most of the infractions that sent a person to 
the rack or the stake were nonviolent, and today many are not even considered 
legally punishable, such as heresy, blasphemy, apostasy, criticism of the gov- 
ernment, gossip, scolding, adultery, and unconventional sexual practices. Both 
the Christian and secular legal systems, inspired by Roman law, used torture 
to extract a confession and thereby convict a suspect, in defiance of the obvious 
fact that a person will say anything to stop the pain. Torture used to secure a 
confession is thus even more senseless than torture used to deter, terrorize, or 
extract verifiable information such as the names of accomplices or the location 
of weapons. Nor were other absurdities allowed to get in the way of the fun. If 
a victim was burned by fire rather than spared by a miracle, that was taken as 
proof that he was guilty. A suspected witch would be tied up and thrown into 
a lake: if she floated, it proved she was a witch and she would then be hanged; 
if she sank and drowned, it proved she had been innocent. 5 

Far from being hidden in dungeons, torture-executions were forms of pop- 
ular entertainment, attracting throngs of jubilant spectators who watched the 
victim struggle and scream. Bodies broken on wheels, hanging from gibbets, 
or decomposing in iron cages where the victim had been left to die of 


starvation and exposure were a familiar part of the landscape. (Some of these 
cages still hang from European public buildings today, such as the cathedral 
of Munster.) Torture was often a participatory sport. A victim in the stocks 
would be tickled, beaten, mutilated, pelted with rocks, or smeared with mud 
or feces, sometimes leading to suffocation. 

Systemic cruelty was far from unique to Europe. Hundreds of methods of 
torture, applied to millions of victims, have been documented in other civiliza- 
tions, including the Assyrians, Persians, Seleucids, Romans, Chinese, Hindus, 
Polynesians, Aztecs, and many African kingdoms and Native American tribes. 
Brutal killings and punishments were also documented among the Israelites, 
Greeks, Arabs, and Ottoman Turks. Indeed, as we saw at the end of chapter 2, 
all of the first complex civilizations were absolutist theocracies which punished 
victimless crimes with torture and mutilation. 6 

This chapter is about the remarkable transformation in history that has left us 
reacting to these practices with horror. In the modern West and much of the rest 
of the world, capital and corporal punishments have been effectively eliminated, 
governments' power to use violence against their subjects has been severely 
curtailed, slavery has been abolished, and people have lost their thirst for cruelty. 
All this happened in a narrow slice of history, beginning in the Age of Reason 
in the 17th century and cresting with the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th. 

Some of this progress — and if it isn't progress, I don't know what is — was 
propelled by ideas: by explicit arguments that institutionalized violence ought 
to be minimized or abolished. And some of it was propelled by a change in 
sensibilities. People began to sympathize with more of their fellow humans, 
and were no longer indifferent to their suffering. A xrew ideology coalesced 
from these forces, one that placed life and happiness at the center of values, 
and that used reason and evidence to motivate the design of institutions. The 
new ideology may be called humanism or human rights, and its sudden impact 
on Western life in the second half of the 18th century may be called the 
Humanitarian Revolution. 

Today the Enlightenment is often mentioned with a sneer. "Critical theo- 
rists" on the left blame it for the disasters of the 20th century; theoconserva- 
tives in the Vatican and the American intellectual right long to replace its 
tolerant secularism with the alleged moral clarity of medieval Catholicism. 7 
Even many moderate secular writers disparage the Enlightenment as the 
revenge of the nerds, the naive faith that humans are a race of pointy-eared 
rational actors. This colossal amnesia and ingratitude is possible because of 
the natural whitewashing of history that we saw in chapter 1, in which the 
reality behind the atrocities of yesteryear is consigned to the memory hole 
and is remembered only in bland idioms and icons. If the opening of this 
chapter has been graphic, it is only to remind you of the realities of the era that 
the Enlightenment put to an end. 


Of course no historical change takes place in a single thunderclap, and 
humanist currents flowed for centuries before and after the Enlightenment 
and in parts of the world other than the West. 8 But in Inventing Human Rights, 
the historian Lynn Hunt notes that human rights have been conspicuously 
affirmed at two moments in history. One was the end of the 18th century, 
which saw the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French 
Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789. The other was the mid- 
point of the 20th century, which saw the Universal Declaration of Human 
Rights in 1948, followed by a cascade of Rights Revolutions in the ensuing 
decades (chapter 7). 

As we shall see, the declarations were more than feel-good verbiage; the 
Humanitarian Revolution initiated the abolition of many barbaric practices 
that had been unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But 
the custom that most dramatically illustrates the advance of humanitarian 
sentiments was eradicated well before that time, and its disappearance is a 
starting point for understanding the decline of institutionalized violence. 



The most benighted form of institutionalized violence is human sacrifice: the 
torture and killing of an innocent person to slake a deity's thirst for blood. 9 

The biblical story of the binding of Isaac shows that human sacrifice was 
far from unthinkable in the 1st millennium BCE. The Israelites boasted that 
their god was morally superior to those of the neighboring tribes because he 
demanded only that sheep and cattle be slaughtered on his behalf, not chil- 
dren. But the temptation must have been around, because the Israelites saw 
fit to outlaw it in Leviticus 18:21: "You shall not give any of your children to 
devote them by fire to Molech, and so profane the name of your God." For 
centuries their descendants would have to take measures against people back- 
sliding into the custom. In the 7th century BCE, King Josiah defiled the sacri- 
ficial arena of Tophet so "that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an 
offering to Molech." 10 After their return from Babylon, the practice of human 
sacrifice died out among Jews, but it survived as an ideal in one of its break- 
away sects, which believed that God accepted the torture-sacrifice of an inno- 
cent man in exchange for not visiting a worse fate on the rest of humanity. The 
sect is called Christianity. 

Human sacrifice appears in the mythology of all the major civilizations. In 
addition to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, it is recounted in the Greek leg- 
end in which Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia in hopes of bring- 
ing a fair wind for his war fleet; in the episode in Roman history in which four 
slaves were buried alive to keep Hannibal at bay; in a Druid legend from Wales 
in which priests killed a child to stop the disappearance of building materials 


for a fort; and in many legends surrounding the multiarmed Hindu goddess 
Kali and the feathered Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. 

Human sacrifice was more than a riveting myth. Two millennia ago the 
Roman historian Tacitus left eyewitness accounts of the practice among Ger- 
manic tribes. Plutarch described it taking place in Carthage, where tourists 
today can see the charred remains of the sacrificial children. It has been doc- 
umented among traditional Hawaiians, Scandinavians, Incas, and Celts 
(remember Bog Man?). It was a veritable industry among the Aztecs in Mexico, 
the Khonds in southeast India, and the Ashanti, Benin, and Dahomey king- 
doms in western Africa, where victims were sacrificed by the thousands. Mat- 
thew White estimates that between the years 1440 and 1524 CE the Aztecs 
sacrificed about forty people a day, 1.2 million people in all. 11 

Human sacrifice is usually preceded by torture. The Aztecs, for example, 
lowered their victims into a fire, lifted them out before they died, and cut the 
beating hearts out of their chests (a spectacle incongruously reenacted in Indi- 
ana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a sacrifice to Kali in 1930s India). The Day- 
aks of Borneo inflicted death by a thousand cuts, slowly bleeding the victim 
to death with bamboo needles and blades. To meet the demand for sacrificial 
victims, the Aztecs went to war to capture prisoners, and the Khonds raised 
them for that purpose from childhood. 

The killing of innocents was often combined with other superstitious cus- 
toms. Foundation sacrifices, in which a victim was interred in the foundation 
of a fort, palace, or temple to mitigate the effrontery of intruding into the gods' 
lofty realm, were performed in Wales, Germany, India, Japan, and China. 
Another bright idea that was independently discovered in many kingdoms 
(including Sumeria, Egypt, China, and Japan) was the burial sacrifice: when 
a king died, his retinue and harem would be buried with him. The Indian 
practice of suttee, in which a widow would join her late husband on the funeral 
pyre, is yet another variation. About 200,000 women suffered these pointless 
deaths between the Middle Ages and 1829, when the practice was outlawed. 12 

What were these people thinking? Many institutionalized killings, however 
unforgivable, are at least understandable. People in power kill in order to 
eliminate enemies, deter troublemakers, or demonstrate their prowess. But 
sacrificing harmless children, going to war to capture victims, and raising a 
doomed caste from childhood hardly seem like cost-effective ways to stay in 

In an insightful book on the history of force, the political scientist James 
Payne suggests that ancient peoples put a low value on other people's lives 
because pain and death were so common in their own. This set a low thresh- 
old for any practice that had a chance of bringing them an advantage, even if 
the price was the lives of others. And if the ancients believed in gods, as most 
people do, then human sacrifice could easily have been seen as offering them 
that advantage. "Their primitive world was full of dangers, suffering, and 


nasty surprises, including plagues, famines, and wars. It would be natural for 
them to ask, 'What kind of god would create such a world?' A plausible answer 
was: a sadistic god, a god who liked to see people bleed and suffer." 13 So, they 
might think, if these gods have a minimum daily requirement of human gore, 
why not be proactive about it? Better him than me. 

Human sacrifice was eliminated in some parts of the world by Christian pros- 
elytizers, such as Saint Patrick in Ireland, and in others by European colonial 
powers like the British in Africa and India. Charles Napier, the British army's 
commander in chief in India, faced with local complaints about the abolition of 
suttee, replied, "You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We 
also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their 
necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will 
build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours." 14 

In most places, though, human sacrifice died out on its own. It was aban- 
doned by the Israelites around 600 BCE, and by the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, 
and Japanese a few centuries later. Something about mature, literate states 
eventually leads them to think the better of human sacrifice. One possibility 
is that the combination of a literate elite, the rudiments of historical scholar- 
ship, and contacts with neighboring societies gives people the means to figure 
out that the bloodthirsty-god hypothesis is incorrect. They infer that throwing 
a virgin into a volcano does not, in fact, cure diseases, defeat enemies, or bring 
them good weather. Another possibility, favored by Payne, is that a more afflu- 
ent and predictable life erodes people's fatalism and elevates their valuation 
of other people's lives. Both theories are plausible, but neither is easy to prove, 
because it's hard to find any scientific or economic advance that coincides with 
the abandonment of human sacrifice. 

The transition away from human sacrifice always has a moral coloring. The 
people who live through the abolition know they have made progress, and 
they look with disgust at the unenlightened foreigners who cling to the old 
ways. One episode in Japan illustrates the expansion of sympathy that must 
contribute to abolition. When the emperor's brother died in 2 BCE, his entou- 
rage was buried with him in a traditional funeral sacrifice. But the victims 
didn't die for several days, and they "wept and wailed at night," upsetting the 
emperor and other witnesses. When the emperor's wife died five years later, 
he changed the custom so that clay images were placed in the tomb instead 
of live humans. As Payne notes, "The emperor shortchanged the gods because 
spending human lives had become too dear." 15 

A sanguinary god that hungers for indiscriminate human scapegoats is a 
rather crude theory of misfortune. When people outgrow it, they are still apt 
to look to supernatural explanations for bad things that happen to them. The 
difference is that their explanations become more finely tuned to their par- 
ticulars. They still feel they have been targeted by supernatural forces, but the 


forces are wielded by a specific individual rather than a generic god. The name 
for such an individual is a witch. 

Witchcraft is one of the most common motives for revenge among hunter- 
gatherer and tribal societies. In their theory of causation, there is no such thing 
as a natural death. Any fatality that cannot be explained by an observable cause 
is explained by an unobservable one, namely sorcery. 16 It seems incredible to us 
that so many societies have sanctioned cold-blooded murder for screwball rea- 
sons. But certain features of human cognition, combined with certain recurring 
conflicts of interest, make it a bit more comprehensible. The brain has evolved 
to ferret out hidden powers in nature, including those that no one can see. 17 Once 
you start rummaging around in the realm of the unverifiable there is consider- 
able room for creativity, and accusations of sorcery are often blended with self- 
serving motives. Tribal people, anthropologists have shown, often single out 
despised in-laws for allegations of witchcraft, a convenient pretext to have them 
executed. The accusations may also be used to cut a rival down to size (especially 
one who has boasted that he really does have magical powers), to claim to be 
holier than everyone else when competing in the local reputational sweepstakes, 
or to dispose of ornery, eccentric, or burdensome neighbors, especially ones 
who have no supporting relatives to avenge their deaths. 18 

People may also use allegations of witchcraft to recoup some of the losses 
from a misfortune by holding another party liable — a bit like American acci- 
dent victims who trip on a crack or spill hot coffee on themselves and sue 
everyone in sight. And perhaps the most potent motive is to deter adversaries 
from plotting against them and covering their tracks: the plotters may be able 
to disprove any physical connection to the attack, but they can never disprove 
a nonphysical connection. In Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather, Vito Corleone 
is credited with the principle "Accidents don't happen to people who take 
accidents as a personal insult." In the movie version, he spells it out to the 
heads of the other crime families: "I'm a superstitious man. And if some 
unlucky accident should befall my son, if my son is struck by a bolt of light- 
ning, I will blame some of the people here." 

Moralistic accusations can sometimes escalate into denunciations of those 
who fail to make moralistic accusations, snowballing into extraordinary pop- 
ular delusions and the madness of crowds. 19 In the 15th century two monks 
published an expose of witches called Malleus Maleficarum, which the historian 
Anthony Grafton has called "a strange amalgam of Monty Python and Mein 
Kampf ." 20 Egged on by its revelations, and inspired by the injunction in Exodus 
22:18 "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," French and German witch-hunters 
killed between 60,000 and 100,000 accused witches (85 percent of them women) 
during the next two centuries. 21 The executions, usually by burning at the 
stake, followed an ordeal of torture in which the women confessed to such 
crimes as eating babies, wrecking ships, destroying crops, flying on broom- 
sticks on the Sabbath, copulating with devils, transforming their demon 


lovers into cats and dogs, and making ordinary men impotent by convincing 
them that they had lost their penises . 22 

The psychology of witchcraft accusations can shade into other blood libels, 
such as the recurring rumors in medieval Europe that Jews poisoned the wells 
or killed Christian children during Passover to use their blood for matzo. 
Thousands of Jews were massacred in England, France, Germany, and the 
Low Countries during the Middle Ages, emptying entire regions of their Jew- 
ish populations . 23 

Witch hunts are always vulnerable to common sense. Objectively speaking, 
it is impossible for a woman to fly on a broomstick or to turn a man into a cat, 
and these facts are not too hard to demonstrate if enough people are allowed 
to compare notes and question popular beliefs. Throughout the Middle Ages 
there were scattered clerics and politicians who pointed out the obvious, 
namely that there is no such thing as a witch, and so persecuting someone for 
witchcraft was a moral abomination. (Unfortunately, some of these skeptics 
ended up in the torture chambers themselves .) 24 These voices became more 
prominent during the Age of Reason, and included influential writers such 
as Erasmus, Montaigne, and Hobbes. 

Some officials became infected with the scientific spirit and tested the 
witchcraft hypothesis for themselves. A Milanese judge killed his mule, 
accused his servant of committing the misdeed, and had him subjected to 
torture, whereupon the man confessed to the crime; he even refused to recant 
on the gallows for fear of being tortured again. (Today this experiment would 
not be approved by committees for the protection of human subjects in 
research.) The judge then abolished the use of torture in his court. The writer 
Daniel Mannix recounts another demonstration: 

The Duke of Brunswick in Germany was so shocked by the methods used 
by Inquisitors in his duchy that he asked two famous Jesuit scholars to 
supervise the hearings. After a careful study the Jesuits told the Duke, "The 
Inquisitors are doing their duty. They are arresting only people who have 
been implicated by the confession of other witches." 

"Come with me to the torture chamber," suggested the Duke. The priests 
followed him to where a wretched woman was being stretched on the rack. 
"Let me question her," suggested the Duke. "Now woman, you are a con- 
fessed witch. I suspect these two men of being warlocks. What do you say? 
Another turn of the rack, executioners." 

"No, no!" screamed the woman. "You are quite right. I have often seen them 
at the Sabbat. They can turn themselves into goats, wolves, and other animals." 

"What else do you know about them?" demanded the Duke. 

"Several witches have had children by them. One woman even had eight 
children whom these men fathered. The children had heads like toads and 
legs like spiders." 


The Duke turned to the astonished Jesuits. “Shall I put you to the torture 

until you confess, my friends?" 25 

One of the Jesuits, Father Friedrich Spee, was so impressed that he wrote a 
book in 1631 that has been credited with ending witchcraft accusations in 
much of Germany. The persecution of witches began to subside during the 
17th century, when several European states abolished it. The year 1716 was 
the last time a woman was hanged as a witch in England, and 1749 was the 
last year a woman was burned as a witch anywhere in Europe. 26 

In most of the world, institutionalized superstitious killing, whether in 
human sacrifice, blood libel, or witch persecution, has succumbed to two pres- 
sures. One is intellectual: the realization that some events, even those with 
profound personal significance, must be attributed to impersonal physical 
forces and raw chance rather than the designs of other conscious beings. A 
great principle of moral advancement, on a par with "Love thy neighbor" and 
"All men are created equal," is the one on the bumper sticker: "Shit happens." 

The other pressure is harder to explain but just as forceful: an increased 
valuation of human life and happiness. Why are we taken aback by the exper- 
iment in which a judge tortured his servant to prove that torture was immoral, 
harming one to help many? It is because we sympathize with other humans, 
even if we don't know them, by virtue of the fact that they are human, and we 
parlay that sympathy into bright lines that outlaw the imposition of suffering 
on an identifiable human being. Even if we have not eliminated the features 
of human nature that tempt us to blame others for our misfortunes, we have 
increasingly prevented that temptation from erupting in violence. An 
increased valuation of the well-being of other people, we shall see, was a com- 
mon thread in the abandonment of other barbaric practices during the Human- 
itarian Revolution. 



Human sacrifice and witch-burnings are just two examples of the harm that 
can result from people pursuing ends that involve figments of their imagina- 
tion. Another may be seen in psychotics who kill in pursuit of a delusion, such 
as Charles Manson's plan to hasten an apocalyptic race war, and John Hinck- 
ley's scheme to impress Jodie Foster. But the greatest damage comes from reli- 
gious beliefs that downgrade the lives of flesh-and-blood people, such as the 
faith that suffering in this world will be rewarded in the next, or that flying a 
plane into a skyscraper will earn the pilot seventy-two virgins in heaven. As 
we saw in chapter 1, the belief that one may escape from an eternity in hell only 
by accepting Jesus as a savior makes it a moral imperative to coerce people into 
accepting that belief and to silence anyone who might sow doubt about it. 


A broader danger of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them 
by violent means. People become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity 
of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, 
and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person's beliefs, and you 
challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based 
on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. No one gets upset about the 
belief that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it 
with their own eyes. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin 
or that God exists in three persons or that Ali was the second-most divinely 
inspired man after Muhammad. When people organize their lives around these 
beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without 
them — or worse, who credibly rebut them— they are in danger of looking like 
fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics 
it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to 
eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful. 

The human toll of the persecution of heretics and nonbelievers in medieval 
and early modern Christendom beggars the imagination and belies the con- 
ventional wisdom that the 20th century was an unusually violent era. Though 
no one knows exactly how many people were killed in these holy slaughters, 
we can get a sense from numerical estimates by atrocitologists such as the 
political scientist R. J. Rummel in his books Death by Government and Statistics 
of Democide and the historian Matthew White in his Great Big Book of Horrible 
Things and his "Deaths by Mass Unpleasantness" Web site. 27 They have tried 
to put numbers on the death tolls of wars and massacres, including those for 
which conventional statistics are unavailable, by combing the available 
sources, assessing their credibility with sanity checks and allowances for bias, 
and selecting a middle value, often the geometric mean of the lowest and the 
highest credible figures. I'll present Rummel's estimates for this era, which 
are generally lower than White's. 28 

Between 1095 and 1208 Crusader armies were mobilized to fight a "just war" 
to retake Jerusalem from Muslim Turks, earning them remission from their 
sins and a ticket to heaven. They massacred Jewish communities on the way, 
and after besieging and sacking Nicea, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constanti- 
nople, they slaughtered their Muslim and Jewish populations. Rummel esti- 
mates the death toll at 1 million. The world had around 400 million people at 
the time, about a sixth of the number in the mid-2oth century, so the death toll 
of the Crusader massacres as a proportion of the world population would today 
come out at around 6 million, equivalent to the Nazis' genocide of the Jews. 29 

In the 13th century the Cathars of southern France embraced the Albigen- 
sian heresy, according to which there are two gods, one of good and one of 
evil. An infuriated papacy, in collusion with the king of France, sent waves of 
armies to the region, which killed around 200,000 of them. To give you a sense 
of the armies' tactics, after capturing the city of Bram in 1210 they took a 


hundred of the defeated soldiers, cut off their noses and upper lips, gouged 
out the eyes of all but one, and had him lead the others to the city of Cabaret 
to terrorize its citizens into surrendering. 30 The reason you have never met a 
Cathar is that the Albigensian Crusade exterminated them. Historians classify 
this episode as a clear instance of genocide. 31 

Shortly after the suppression of the Albigensian heresy, the Inquisition was 
set up to root out other heresies in Europe. Between the late 15th and early 18th 
centuries, the Spanish branch took aim at converts from Judaism and Islam 
who were suspected of backsliding into their old practices. One transcript from 
16th-century Toledo describes the inquisition of a woman who was accused of 
wearing clean underwear on Saturday, a sign that she was a secret Jew. She was 
subjected to the rack and the water torture (I'll spare you the details — it was 
worse than waterboarding), given several days to recover, and tortured again 
while she desperately tried to figure out what she should confess to. 32 The 
Vatican today claims that the Inquisition killed only a few thousand people, 
but it leaves off the books the larger number of victims who were remanded to 
secular authorities for execution or imprisonment (often a slow death sentence), 
together with the victims of branch offices in the New World. Rummel esti- 
mates the death toll from the Spanish Inquisition at 350,ooo. 33 

After the Reformation, the Catholic Church had to deal with the vast num- 
ber of people in northern Europe who became Protestants, often involuntarily 
after their local prince or king had converted. 34 The Protestants, for their part, 
had to deal with the breakaway sects that wanted nothing to do with either 
branch of Christianity, and of course with the Jews. One might think that 
Protestants, who had been persecuted so viciously for their heresies against 
Catholic doctrines, would take a dim view of the idea of persecuting heretics, 
but no. In his 65,000-word treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, Martin Luther 
offered the following advice on what Christians should do with this "rejected 
and condemned people": 

First, ... set fire to their synagogues or schools and . . . bury and cover with 
dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or 
cinder of them. . . . Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and 
destroyed. . . . Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writ- 
ings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be 
taken from them. . . . Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach 
henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. . . . Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct 
on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. . . . Sixth, I advise that 
usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold 
be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. Seventh, I recommend 
putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of 
young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the 
sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen. 3IH9]). 


For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat 
of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the 
stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their 
lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. Let us emulate the com- 
mon sense of other nations . . . [and] eject them forever from the country. 35 

At least he suffered most of them to live. The Anabaptists (forerunners of 
today's Amish and Mennonites) got no such mercy. They believed that people 
should not be baptized at birth but should affirm their faith for themselves, 
so Luther declared they should be put to death. The other major founder of 
Protestantism, John Calvin, had a similar view about blasphemy and heresy: 

Some say that because the crime consists only of words there is no cause for 
such severe punishment. But we muzzle dogs; shall we leave men free to 
open their mouths and say what they please? . . . God makes it plain that the 
false prophet is to be stoned without mercy. We are to crush beneath our 
heels all natural affections when his honour is at stake. The father should 
not spare his child, nor the husband his wife, nor the friend that friend who 
is dearer to him than life. 36 

Calvin put his argument into practice by ordering, among other things, that 
the writer Michael Servetus (who had questioned the trinity) be burned at the 
stake. 37 The third major rebel against Catholicism was Henry VIII, whose 
administration burned, on average, 3.25 heretics per year. 38 

With the people who brought us the Crusades and Inquisition on one side, 
and the people who wanted to kill rabbis. Anabaptists, and Unitarians on the 
other, it's not surprising that the European Wars of Religion between 1520 and 
1648 were nasty, brutish, and long. The wars were fought, to be sure, not just 
over religion but also over territorial and dynastic power, but the religious 
differences kept tempers at a fever pitch. According to the classification of the 
military historian Quincy Wright, the Wars of Religion embrace the French 
Huguenot Wars (1562-94), the Dutch Wars of Independence, also known as 
the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648), the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), the English 
Civil War (1642-48), the wars of Elizabeth I in Ireland, Scotland, and Spain 
(1586-1603), the War of the Holy League (1508-16), and Charles V's wars in 
Mexico, Peru, France, and the Ottoman Empire (1521-52). 39 The rates of death 
in these wars were staggering. During the Thirty Years' War soldiers laid 
waste to much of present-day Germany, reducing its population by around a 
third. Rummel puts the death toll at 5.75 million, which as a proportion of the 
world's population at the time was more than double the death rate of World 
War I and was in the range of World War II in Europe. 40 The historian Simon 
Schama estimates that the English Civil War killed almost half a million peo- 
ple, a loss that is proportionally greater than that in World War I. 41 


It wasn't until the second half of the 17th century that Europeans finally 
began to lose their zeal for killing people with the wrong supernatural beliefs. 
The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648, confirmed 
the principle that each local prince could decide whether his state would be 
Protestant or Catholic and that the minority denomination in each one could 
more or less live in peace. (Pope Innocent X was not a good sport about this: 
he declared the Peace "null, void, invalid, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, 
empty of meaning and effect for all time.") 42 The Spanish and Portuguese 
Inquisitions began to run out of steam in the 17th century, declined further in 
the 18th, and were shut down in 1834 and 1821, respectively. 43 England put 
religious killing behind it after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Though the 
divisions of Christianity have sporadically continued to skirmish right up to 
the present (Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and Catholics and 
Orthodox Christians in the Balkans), today the disputes are more ethnic and 
political than theological. Beginning in the 1790s, Jews were granted legal 
equality in the West, first in the United States, France, and the Netherlands, 
and then, over the following century, in most of the rest of Europe. 

What made Europeans finally decide that it was all right to let their dissenting 
compatriots risk eternal damnation and, by their bad example, lure others to 
that fate? Perhaps they were exhausted by the Wars of Religion, but it's not 
clear why it took thirty years to exhaust them rather than ten or twenty. One 
gets a sense that people started to place a higher value on human life. Part of 
this newfound appreciation was an emotional change: a habit of identifying 
with the pains and pleasures of others. And another part was an intellectual 
and moral change: a shift from valuing souls to valuing lives. The doctrine of 
the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malig- 
nant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass 
through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence. Death becomes 
a mere rite of passage, like puberty or a midlife crisis. 

The gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was 
helped along by the ascendancy of skepticism and reason. No one can deny 
the difference between life and death or the existence of suffering, but it takes 
indoctrination to hold beliefs about what becomes of an immortal soul after 
it has parted company from the body. The 17th century is called the Age of 
Reason, an age when writers began to insist that beliefs be justified by experi- 
ence and logic. That undermines dogmas about souls and salvation, and it 
undermines the policy of forcing people to believe unbelievable things at the 
point of a sword (or a Judas's Cradle). 

Erasmus and other skeptical philosophers noted that human knowledge 
was inherently fragile. If our eyes can be fooled by a visual illusion (such as 
an oar that appears to be broken at the water's surface, or a cylindrical tower 
in the distance that appears to be square), why should we trust our beliefs 


about more vaporous objects? 44 Calvin's burning of Michael Servetus in 1553 
prompted a widespread scrutiny of the very idea of religious persecution. 45 
The French scholar Sebastian Castellio led the charge by calling attention to 
the absurdity of different people being unshakably certain of the truth of their 
mutually incompatible beliefs. He also noted the horrific moral consequences 
of acting on these beliefs. 

Calvin says that he is certain, and [other sects] say that they are; Calvin says 
that they are wrong and wishes to judge them, and so do they. Who shall be 
judge? Who made Calvin the arbiter of all the sects, that he alone should 
kill? He has the Word of God and so have they. If the matter is certain, to 
whom is it so? To Calvin? But then why does he write so many books about 
manifest truth? ... In view of the uncertainty we must define the heretic 
simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill her- 
etics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, since each is sure 
of himself. Calvin would have to invade France and all other nations, wipe 
out cities, put all the inhabitants to the sword, sparing neither sex nor age, 
not even babies and the beasts. 46 

The arguments were picked up in the 17th century by, among others, Baruch 
Spinoza, John Milton (who wrote, "Let truth and falsehood grapple . . . truth 
is strong"), Isaac Newton, and John Locke. The emergence of modern science 
proved that deeply held beliefs could be entirely false, and that the world 
worked by physical laws rather than by divine whims. The Catholic Church 
did itself no favor by threatening Galileo with torture and committing him to 
a life sentence of house arrest for espousing what turned out to be correct 
beliefs about the physical world. And the skeptical mindset, sometimes spiced 
with humor and common sense, was increasingly allowed to challenge super- 
stition. In Henry IV, Part 1, Glendower boasts, "I can call spirits from the vasty 
deep." Hotspur replies, "Why, so can I, or so can any man; / But will they come 
when you do call for them?" Francis Bacon, often credited with the principle 
that beliefs must be grounded in observation, wrote of a man who was taken 
to a house of worship and shown a painting of sailors who had escaped ship- 
wreck by paying their holy vows. The man was asked whether this didn't 
prove the power of the gods. "Aye," he answered, "but where are they painted 
that were drowned after their vows?" 47 


The debunking of superstition and dogma removes one of the pretexts for 
torture, but leaves it available as a punishment for secular crimes and misde- 
meanors. People in ancient, medieval, and early modern times thought cruel 
punishments were perfectly reasonable. The whole point of punishing 


someone is to make him so unhappy that he and others won't be tempted to 
engage in the prohibited activity. By that reasoning, the harsher the punish- 
ment is, the better it accomplishes what it is designed to do. Also, a state with- 
out an effective police and judiciary had to make a little punishment go a long 
way. It had to make the punishments so memorably brutal that anyone who 
witnessed them would be terrorized into submission and would spread the 
word to terrorize others. 

But the practical function of cruel punishments was just a part of their 
appeal. Spectators enjoyed cruelty, even when it served no judicial purpose. 
Torturing animals, for example, was good clean fun. In 16th-century Paris, a 
popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted 
in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian 
Norman Davies, "The spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with 
laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally 
carbonized." 48 Also popular were dogfights, bull runs, cockfights, public exe- 
cutions of "criminal" animals, and bearbaiting, in which a bear would be 
chained to a post and dogs would tear it apart or be killed in the effort. 

Even when they were not actively enjoying torture, people showed a chill- 
ing insouciance to it. Samuel Pepys, presumably one of the more refined men 
of his day, made the following entry in his diary for October 13, 1660: 

Out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and 
quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could 
do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart 
shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy. . . . From thence 
to my Lord's, and took Captain Cuttance and Mr. Sheply to the Sun Tavern, 
and did give them some oysters. 49 

Pepys's cold joke about Harrison's "looking as cheerful as any man could do 
in that condition" referred to his being partly strangled, disemboweled, cas- 
trated, and shown his organs being burned before being decapitated. 

Even the less flamboyant penalties that we remember with the euphemism 
"corporal punishment" were forms of hideous torture. Today many histori- 
cal tourist traps have stocks and pillories in which children can pose for pic- 
tures. Here is a description of an actual pillorying of two men in 18th-century 

One of them being of short stature could not reach the hole made for the 
admission of the head. The officers of justice nevertheless forced his head 
through the hole and the poor wretch hung rather than stood. He soon grew 
black in the face and blood issued from his nostrils, his eyes and his ears. 
The mob nevertheless attacked him with great fury. The officers opened the 
pillory and the poor wretch fell down dead on the stand of the instrument. 


The other man was so maimed and hurt by what was thrown at him that he 
lay there without hope of recovery. 50 

Another kind of "corporal punishment" was flogging, the common penalty 
for insolence or dawdling by British sailors and African American slaves. 
Whips were engineered in countless models that could flay skin, pulverize 
flesh into mincemeat, or slice through muscle to the bone. Charles Napier 
recounted that in the late-i8th-century British armed forces, sentences of a 
thousand lashes were not uncommon: 

I have often seen victims brought out of the hospital three or four times to 
receive the remainder of the punishment, too severe to be borne without 
danger of death at one flogging. It was terrible to see the new, tender skin of 
the scarcely healed back laid bare again to receive the lash. I have seen hun- 
dreds of men flogged and have always observed that when the skin is thor- 
oughly cut up or flayed off, the great pain subsides. Men are frequently 
convulsed and screaming during the time they receive from one lash to 
three hundred and then they bear the remainder, even to 800 or a thousand 
without a groan. They will often lie as without life and the drummers appear 
to be flogging a lump of dead, raw flesh. 51 

The word keelhaul is sometimes used to refer to a verbal reprimanding. Its 
literal sense comes from another punishment in the British navy. A sailor was 
tied to a rope and pulled around the bottom of the ship's hull. If he didn't 
drown, he would be slashed to ribbons by the encrusted barnacles. 

By the end of the 16th century in England and the Netherlands, imprison- 
ment began to replace torture and mutilation as the penalty for minor crimes. 
It was not much of an improvement. Prisoners had to pay for food, clothing, 
and straw, and if they or their families couldn't pay they did without. Some- 
times they had to pay for "easement of irons," namely being released from 
spiked iron collars or from bars that pinned their legs to the floor. Vermin, heat 
and cold, human waste, and scanty and putrid food not only added to the mis- 
ery but fostered diseases that made prisons de facto death camps. Many prisons 
were workhouses in which underfed prisoners were forced to rasp wood, break 
rocks, or climb moving treadwheels for most of their waking hours.- 52 

The 18th century marked a turning point in the use of institutionalized cruelty 
in the West. In England reformers and committees criticized the "cruelty, 
barbarity, and extortion" they found in the country's prisons. 53 Graphic reports 
of torture-executions began to sear the public's conscience. According to a 
description of the execution of Catherine Hayes in 1726, "As soon as the flames 
reached her, she tried to push away the faggots with her hands but scattered 
them. The executioner got hold of the rope around her neck and tried to 


strangle her but the fire reached his hand and burned it so he had to let it go. 
More faggots were immediately thrown on the fire and in three or four hours 
she was reduced to ashes." 54 

The bland phrase broken on the wheel cannot come close to capturing the 
horror of that form of punishment. According to one chronicler, the victim 
was transformed into a "huge screaming puppet writhing in rivulets of blood, 
a puppet with four tentacles, like a sea monster, of raw, slimy and shapeless 
flesh mixed up with splinters of smashed bones." 55 In 1762 a sixty-four-year- 
old French Protestant named Jean Calas was accused of killing his son to 
prevent him from converting to Catholicism; in fact, he had tried to conceal 
the son's suicide. 56 During an interrogation that attempted to draw out the 
names of his accomplices, he was subjected to the strappado and water torture, 
then was broken on the wheel. After being left in agony for two hours, Calas 
was finally strangled in an act of mercy. Witnesses who heard his protestations 
of innocence as his bones were being broken were moved by the terrible spec- 
tacle. Each blow of the iron club "sounded in the bottom of their souls," and 
"torrents of tears were unleashed, too late, from all the eyes present." 57 Voltaire 
took up the cause, noting the irony that foreigners judged France by its fine 
literature and beautiful actresses without realizing that it was a cruel nation 
that followed "atrocious old customs." 5 ® 

Other prominent writers also began to inveigh against sadistic punish- 
ments. Some, like Voltaire, used the language of shaming, calling the practices 
barbaric, savage, cruel, primitive, cannibalistic, and atrocious. Others, like 
Montesquieu, pointed out the hypocrisy of Christians' bemoaning their cruel 
treatment at the hands of Romans, Japanese, and Muslims, yet inflicting the 
same cruelty themselves. 59 Still others, like the American physician and signer 
of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush, appealed to the common 
humanity of readers and the people who were targets of punishment. In 1787 
he noted that "the men, or perhaps the women, whose persons we detest, pos- 
sess souls and bodies composed of the same materials as those of our friends 
and relations. They are bone of their bone." And, he added, if we consider their 
misery without emotion or sympathy, then "the principle of sympathy . . . will 
cease to act altogether; and will soon lose its place in the human breast." 60 The 
goal of the judicial system should be to rehabilitate wrongdoers rather than 
harming them, and "the reformation of a criminal can never be effected by a 
public punishment." 6 ' The English lawyer William Eden also noted the brutal- 
izing effect of cruel punishments, writing in 1771, "We leave each other to rot 
like scare-crows in the hedges; and our gibbets are crowded with human car- 
casses. May it not be doubted, whether a forced familiarity with such objects 
can have any other effect, than to blunt the sentiments, and destroy the benev- 
olent prejudices of the people?" 62 

Most influential of all was the Milanese economist and social scientist 
Cesare Beccaria, whose 1764 bestseller On Crimes and Punishments influenced 

H8 the better angels of our nature 

every major political thinker in the literate world, including Voltaire, Denis 
Diderot, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. 63 Beccaria began from first prin- 
ciples, namely that the goal of a system of justice is to attain "the greatest hap- 
piness of the greatest number" (a phrase later adopted by Jeremy Bentham as 
the motto of utilitarianism). The only legitimate use of punishment, then, is 
to deter people from inflicting greater harm on others than the harm inflicted 
on them. It follows that a punishment should be proportional to the harm of 
the crime — not to balance some mysterious cosmic scale of justice but to set 
up the right incentive structure: "If an equal punishment be ordained for two 
crimes that injure society in different degrees, there is nothing to deter men 
from committing the greater as often as it is attended with greater advantage." 
A clearheaded view of criminal justice also entails that the certainty and 
promptness of a punishment are more important than its severity, that crim- 
inal trials should be public and based on evidence, and that the death penalty 
is unnecessary as a deterrent and not among the powers that should be granted 
to a state. 

Beccaria's essay didn't impress everyone. It was placed on the papal Index 
of Forbidden Books, and vigorously contested by the legal and religious scholar 
Pierre-Frangois Muyart de Vouglans. Muyart mocked Beccaria's bleeding-heart 
sensibility, accused him of recklessly undermining a time-tested system, and 
argued that strong punishments were needed to counteract man's innate 
depravity, beginning with his original sin. 64 

But Beccaria's ideas carried the day, and within a few decades punitive 
torture was abolished in every major Western country, including the newly 
independent United States in its famous prohibition of "cruel and unusual 
punishments" in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Though it is 
impossible to plot the decline of torture precisely (because many countries 
outlawed different uses at different times), the cumulative graph in figure 4-2 
shows when fifteen major European countries, together with the United States, 
explicitly abolished the major forms of judicial torture practiced there. 

I have demarcated the 18th century on this and the other graphs in this 
chapter to highlight the many humanitarian reforms that were launched in 
this remarkable slice of history. Another was the prevention of cruelty to ani- 
mals. In 1789 Jeremy Bentham articulated the rationale for animal rights in a 
passage that continues to be the watchword of animal protection movements 
today: "The question is not Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but. Can they 
suffer?" Beginning in 1800, the first laws against bearbaiting were introduced 
into Parliament. In 1822 it passed the Ill-Treatment of Cattle Act and in 1835 
extended its protections to bulls, bears, dogs, and cats. 65 Like many humani- 
tarian movements that originated in the Enlightenment, opposition to animal 
cruelty found a second wind during the Rights Revolutions of the second half 
of the 20th century, culminating in the banning of the last legal blood sport 
in Britain, the foxhunt, in 2005. 


FIGURE 4-2. Time line for the abolition of judicial torture 

Sources: Hunt, 2007, pp. 76, 179; Mannix, 1964, pp. 137-38. 


When England introduced drop hanging in 1783 and France introduced the 
guillotine in 1792, it was a moral advance, because an execution that instantly 
renders the victim unconscious is more humane than one that is designed to 
prolong his suffering. But execution is still a form of extreme violence, espe- 
cially when it is applied as frivolously as most states did for most of human 
history. In biblical, medieval, and early modern times, scores of trivial affronts 
and infractions were punishable by death, including sodomy, gossiping, steal- 
ing cabbages, picking up sticks on the Sabbath, talking back to parents, and 
criticizing the royal garden. 66 During the last years of the reign of Henry VIII, 
there were more than ten executions in London every week. By 1822 England 
had 222 capital offenses on the books, including poaching, counterfeiting, 
robbing a rabbit warren, and cutting down a tree. And with an average trial 
length at the time of eight and a half minutes, it is certain that many of the 
people sent to the gallows were innocent. 6 " Rummel estimates that between 
the time of Jesus and the 20th century, 19 million people were executed for 
trivial offenses. 68 

But as the 18th century came to a close, capital punishment itself was on 
death row. Public hangings, which had long been rowdy carnivals, were abol- 
ished in England in 1783. The display of corpses on gibbets was abolished in 
1834, and by 1861 England's 222 capital offenses had been reduced to 4 69 Dur- 
ing the 19th century many European countries stopped executing people for 
any crime but murder and high treason, and eventually almost every Western 


nation abolished capital punishment outright. To get ahead in the story, figure 
4-3 shows that of the fifty-three extant European countries today, ah but Rus- 
sia and Belarus have abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes. (A hand- 
ful keep it on the books for high treason and grave military offenses.) The 
abolition of capital punishment snowballed after World War II, but the practice 
had fallen out of favor well before that time. The Netherlands, for example, 
officially abolished capital punishment in 1982, but hadn't actually executed 
anyone since i860. On average fifty years elapsed between the last execution 
in a country and the year that it formally abolished capital punishment. 

Today capital punishment is widely seen as a human rights violation. In 
2007 the UN General Assembly voted 105-54 (with 29 abstentions) to declare 
a nonbinding moratorium on the death penalty, a measure that had failed in 
1994 and 1999. 70 One of the countries that opposed the resolution was the 
United States. As with most forms of violence, the United States is an outlier 
among Western democracies (or perhaps I should say “are outliers," since sev- 
enteen states, mostly in the North, have abolished the death penalty as well — 
four of them within the past two years — and an eighteenth has not carried 
out an execution in forty-five years). 71 But even the American death penalty, 
for all its notoriety, is more symbolic than real. Figure 4-4 shows that the rate 
of executions in the United States as a proportion of its population has plum- 
meted since colonial times, and that the steepest drop was in the 17th and 18th 
centuries, when so many other forms of institutional violence were being 
scaled back in the West. 

FIGURE 4-3. Time line for the abolition of capital punishment in Europe 

Sources: French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2007; Capital Punishment U.K., 2004; Amnesty Inter- 
national, 2010. 


FIGURE 4-4. Execution rate in the United States, 1640-2010 

Sources: Payne, 2004, p. 130, based on data from Espy & Smykla, 2002. The figures for the decades 
ending in 2000 and 2010 are from Death Penalty Information Center, 2010b. 

The barely visible swelling in the last two decades reflects the tough-on-crime 
policies that were a reaction to the homicide boom of the 1960s, 1970s, and 
1980s. But in present-day America a "death sentence" is a bit of a fiction, 
because mandatory legal reviews delay most executions indefinitely, and only 
a few tenths of a percentage point of the nation's murderers are ever put to 
death/ 2 And the most recent trend points downward: the peak year for execu- 
tions was 1999, and since then the number of executions per year has been 
almost halved/ 3 

At the same time that the rate of capital punishment went down, so did the 
number of capital crimes. In earlier centuries people could be executed for 
theft, sodomy, buggery, bestiality, adultery, witchcraft, arson, concealing birth, 
burglary, slave revolt, counterfeiting, and horse theft. Figure 4-5 shows the 
proportion of American executions since colonial times that were for crimes 
other than homicide. In recent decades the only crime other than murder that 
has led to an execution is "conspiracy to commit murder." In 2007 the U.S. 
Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty may not be applied to any crime 
against an individual "where the victim's life was not taken" (though the death 
penalty is still available for a few "crimes against the state" such as espionage, 
treason, and terrorism). 74 

The means of execution has changed as well. Not only has the country long 
abandoned torture-executions such as burning at the stake, but it has experi- 
mented with a succession of "humane" methods, the problem being that the 
more effectively a method guarantees instant death (say, a few bullets to the 


FIGURE 4-5. Executions for crimes other than homicide in the United States, 1650-2002 

Sources: Espy & Smykla, 2002; Death Penalty Information Center, 2010a. 

brain), the more gruesome it will appear to onlookers, who don't want to be 
reminded that violence has been applied to kill a living body. Hence the phys- 
icality of ropes and bullets gave way to the invisible agents of gas and electric- 
ity, which have been replaced by the quasi-medical procedure of lethal 
injection under general anesthesia — and even that method has been criticized 
for being too stressful to the dying prisoner. As Payne has noted. 

In reform after reform lawmakers have moderated the death penalty so that 
it is now but a vestige of its former self. It is not terrifying, it is not swift, and 
in its present restricted use, it is not certain (only about one murder in two 
hundred leads to an execution). What does it mean, then, to say that the 
United States "has" the death penalty? If the United States had the death 
penalty in robust, traditional form, we would be executing approximately 
10,000 prisoners a year, including scores of perfectly innocent people. The 
victims would be killed in torture-deaths, and these events would be shown 
on nationwide television to be viewed by all citizens, including children (at 
27 executions a day, this would leave little time for any other television fare). 
That defenders of capital punishment would be appalled by this prospect 
shows that even they have felt the leavening effects of the increasing respect 
for human life. 75 

One can imagine that in the 18th century the idea of abolishing capital 
punishment would have seemed reckless. Undeterred by the fear of a grisly 
execution, one might have thought, people would not hesitate to murder for 


profit or revenge. Yet today we know that abolition, far from reversing the 
centuries-long decline of homicide, proceeded in tandem with it, and that the 
countries of modern Western Europe, none of which execute people, have 
the lowest homicide rates in the world. It is one of many cases in which insti- 
tutionalized violence was once seen as indispensable to the functioning of a 
society, yet once it was abolished, the society managed to get along perfectly 
well without it. 


For most of the history of civilization, the practice of slavery was the rule rather 
than the exception. It was upheld in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and was 
justified by Plato and Aristotle as a natural institution that was essential to 
civilized society. So-called democratic Athens in the time of Pericles enslaved 
35 percent of its population, as did the Roman Republic. Slaves have always 
been a major booty in wartime, and stateless people of all races were vulner- 
able to capture. 7b The word slave comes from Slav, because, as the dictionary 
informs us, "Slavic peoples were widely captured and enslaved during the 
Middle Ages." States and armed forces, when they were not used as enslaving 
devices, were used as enslavement-prevention devices, as we are reminded 
by the lyric "Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves. Britons never, never, 
never shall be slaves." Well before Africans were enslaved by Europeans, they 
were enslaved by other Africans, as well as by Islamic states in North Africa 
and the Middle East. Some of those states did not abolish legal slavery until 
recently: Qatar in 1952; Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 1962; Mauritania in 1980. 77 

For captives in war, slavery was often a better fate than the alternative, 
massacre, and in many societies slavery shaded into milder forms of servitude, 
employment, military service, and occupational guilds. But violence is inher- 
ent to the definition of slavery— if a person did all the work of a slave but had 
the option of quitting at any time without being physically restrained or pun- 
ished, we would not call him a slave — and this violence was often a regular 
part of a slave's life. Exodus 21:20-21 decrees, "When a slave-owner strikes a 
male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner 
shall be punished. But if the slave survives for a day or two, there is no pun- 
ishment; for the slave is the owner's property." Slaves' lack of ownership of 
their own bodies left even the better-treated ones vulnerable to vicious exploi- 
tation. Women in harems were perpetual rape victims, and the men who 
guarded them, eunuchs, had their testicles — or in the case of black eunuchs, 
their entire genitalia — hacked off with a knife and cauterized with boiling 
butter so they would not bleed to death from the wound. 

The African slave trade in particular was among the most brutal chapters 
in human history. Between the 16th and 19th centuries at least 1.5 million 
Africans died in transatlantic slave ships, chained together in stifling. 


filth-ridden holds, and as one observer noted, "those who remain to meet the 
shore present a picture of wretchedness language cannot express." 78 Millions 
more perished in forced marches through jungles and deserts to slave markets 
on the coast or in the Middle East. Slave traders treated their cargo according 
to the business model of ice merchants, who accept that a certain proportion 
of their goods will be lost in transport. At least 17 million Africans, and per- 
haps as many as 65 million, died in the slave trade. 79 The slave trade not only 
killed people in transit, but by providing a continuous stream of bodies, it 
encouraged slaveholders to work their slaves to death and replace them with 
new ones. But even the slaves who were kept in relatively good health lived 
in the shadow of flogging, rape, mutilation, forced separation from family 
members, and summary execution. 

Slaveholders in many times have manumitted their slaves, often in their 
wills, as they became personally close to them. In some places, such as Europe 
in the Middle Ages, slavery gave way to serfdom and sharecropping when it 
became cheaper to tax people than to keep them in bondage, or when weak 
states could not enforce a slave owner's property rights. But a mass movement 
against chattel slavery as an institution arose for the first time in the 18th cen- 
tury and rapidly pushed it to near extinction. 

Why did people eventually forswear the ultimate labor-saving device? His- 
torians have long debated the extent to which the abolition of slavery was 
driven by economics or by humanitarian concerns. At one time the economic 
explanation seemed compelling. In 1776 Adam Smith reasoned that slavery 
must be less efficient than paid employment because only the latter was a 
positive-sum game: 

The work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, 
is in the end the dearest of any. A person who can acquire no property, can 
have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible. 
Whatever work he does beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own main- 
tenance can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest 
of his own. 80 

The political scientist John Mueller points out, "Smith's view garnered 
adherents, but not, as it happens, among slaveowners. That is, either Smith 
was wrong, or slaveholders were bad businessmen." 81 Some economists, such 
as Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, have concluded that Smith was at least 
partly wrong in the case of the antebellum South, which had a reasonably 
efficient economy for the time. 82 And southern slavery, of course, did not grad- 
ually give way to more cost-effective production techniques but had to be 
obliterated by war and by law. 

It took guns and laws to end slavery in much of the rest of the world as well. 
Britain, once among the most exuberant slave-trading nations, outlawed the 


slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery throughout the empire in 1833. By 
the 1840s it was jawboning other countries to end their participation in the 
slave trade, backed up by economic sanctions and by almost a quarter of the 
Royal Navy. 83 

Most historians have concluded that Britain's policing of the abolition of 
slavery was driven by humanitarian motives. 84 Locke undermined the moral 
basis for slavery in his 1689 work Two Treatises on Government, and though he 
and many of his intellectual descendants hypocritically profited from the 
institution, their advocacy of liberty, equality, and the universal rights of man 
let a genie out of the bottle and made it increasingly awkward for anyone to 
justify the practice. Many of the Enlightenment writers who inveighed against 
torture on humanitarian grounds, such as Jacques-Pierre Brisson in France, 
applied the same logic to oppose slavery. They were joined by Quakers, who 
founded the influential Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, 
and by preachers, scholars, free blacks, former slaves, and politicians. 85 

At the same time, many politicians and preachers defended slavery, citing 
the Bible's approval of the practice, the inferiority of the African race, the value 
of preserving the southern way of life, and a paternalistic concern that freed 
slaves could not survive on their own. But these rationalizations withered 
under intellectual and moral scrutiny. The intellectual argument held that it 
was indefensible to allow one person to own another, arbitrarily excluding 
him from the community of decision-makers whose interests were negotiated 
in the social contract. As Jefferson put it, "The mass of mankind has not been 
born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready 
to ride them legitimately." 8 '’ The moral revulsion was stimulated by first-person 
accounts of what it was like to be a slave. Some were autobiographies, like The 
Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, the African, Written by Himself 
(1789) and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). 
Even more influential was a work of fiction, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle 
Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly (1852). The novel depicted a wrenching 
episode in which mothers were separated from their children, and another in 
which the kindly Tom was beaten to death for refusing to flog other slaves. 
The book sold three hundred thousand copies and was a catalyst for the abo- 
litionist movement. According to legend, when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe 
in 1862, he said, "So you're the little woman who started this great war." 

In 1865, after the most destructive war in American history, slavery was 
abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Many countries 
had abolished it before that time, and France had the dubious distinction of 
abolishing it twice, first in the wake of the French Revolution in 1794 and again, 
after Napoleon had restored it in 1802, during the Second Republic in 1848. 
The rest of the world quickly followed suit. Many encyclopedias provide time 
lines of the abolition of slavery, which differ slightly in how they delineate 
territories and what they count as "abolition," but they all show the same 


pattern: an explosion of abolition proclamations beginning in the late 18th 
century. Figure 4-6 shows the cumulative number of nations and colonies that 
have formally abolished slavery since 1575. 

Closely related to slavery is the practice of debt bondage. Beginning in 
biblical and classical times, people who defaulted on their loans could be 
enslaved, imprisoned, or executed. 8 ' The word draconian comes from the Greek 
lawgiver Draco, who in 621 BCE codified laws governing the enslavement of 
debtors. Shylock's right to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio in The Merchant 
of Venice is another reminder of the practice. By the 16th century defaulters 
were no longer enslaved or executed, but they filled up debtors' prisons by 
the thousands. Sometimes they were charged for food, despite being broke, 
and had to survive on what they could beg from passersby through the win- 
dows of the jail. In early-njth-century America, thousands of people, including 
many women, languished in debtors' prisons, half of them for debts of less 
than ten dollars. In the 1830s a reform movement sprang up which, like the 
antislavery movement, appealed to both reason and emotion. A congressional 
committee argued that it ran contrary to the principles of justice "to give the 
creditor, in any case whatever, power over the body of his debtor." The com- 
mittee also noted that "if all the victims of oppression were presented to our 
view in one congregated mass, with all the train of wives, children, and 
friends, involved in the same ruin, they would exhibit a spectacle at which 

FIGURE 4-6. Time line for the abolition of slavery 

Source: The most comprehensive list of abolitions I have found is "Abolition of slavery timeline," 
Wikipedia,, retrieved Aug. 18, 2009. 
Included are all entries from "Modern Timeline" that mention formal abolition of slavery in a 
political jurisdiction. 


humanity would shudder." 88 Debt bondage was abolished by almost every 
American state between 1820 and 1840, and by most European governments 
in the 1860s and 1870s. 

The history of our treatment of debtors, Payne notes, illustrates the myste- 
rious process in which violence has declined in every sphere of life. Western 
societies have gone from enslaving and executing debtors to imprisoning them 
and then to seizing their assets to repay the debt. Even the seizure of assets, 
he points out, is a kind of violence: "When John buys groceries on credit and 
later refuses to pay for them, he has not used force. If the grocer goes to court 
and gets the police to seize John's car or bank account, the grocer and police 
are the ones who are initiating the use of force." 89 And because it is a form of 
violence, even if people don't usually think of it that way, this practice too has 
been in decline. The trend in bankruptcy law has been away from punishing 
debtors or squeezing assets out of them and toward giving them the oppor- 
tunity of a fresh start. In many states a debtor's house, car, retirement accounts, 
and spouse's assets are protected, and when a person or company declares 
bankruptcy, they can write off many debts with impunity. In the old days of 
debtors' prisons, people might have predicted that this lenience would spell 
the demise of capitalism, which depends on the repayment of loans. But the 
commercial ecosystem evolved workarounds for this loss of leverage. Credit 
checks, credit ratings, loan insurance, and credit cards are just some of the 
ways that economic life continued after borrowers could no longer be deterred 
by the threat of legal coercion. An entire category of violence evaporated, and 
mechanisms that carried out the same function materialized, without anyone 
realizing that that was what was happening. 

Slavery and other forms of bondage, of course, have not been obliterated 
from the face of the earth. As a result of recent publicity about the trafficking 
of people for labor and prostitution, one sometimes hears the statistically 
illiterate and morally obtuse claim that nothing has changed since the 18th 
century, as if there were no difference between a clandestine practice in a few 
parts of the world and an authorized practice everywhere in the world. More- 
over, modern human trafficking, as heinous as it is, cannot be equated with 
the horrors of the African slave trade. As David Feingold, who initiated the 
UNESCO Trafficking Statistics Project in 2003, notes of today's hotbeds of traf- 

The identification of trafficking with chattel slavery— in particular, the trans- 
atlantic slave trade — is tenuous at best. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Afri- 
can slaves were kidnapped or captured in war. They were shipped to the 
New World into life-long servitude, from which they or their children could 
rarely escape. In contrast, although some trafficking victims are kidnapped, 
for most . . . , trafficking is migration gone terribly wrong. Most leave their 
homes voluntarily — though sometimes coerced by circumstance — in search 


of a materially better or more exciting life. Along the way, they become 
enmeshed in a coercive and exploitative situation. However, this situation 
rarely persists for life; nor ... do the trafficked become a permanent or hered- 
itary caste. 90 

Feingold also notes that the numbers of trafficking victims reported by 
activist groups and repeated by journalists and nongovernmental organiza- 
tions are usually pulled out of thin air and inflated for their advocacy value. 
Nonetheless, even the activists recognize the fantastic progress that has been 
made. A statement by Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves, though it 
begins with a dubious statistic, puts the issue in perspective: "While the real 
number of slaves is the largest there has ever been, it is also probably the small- 
est proportion of the world population ever in slavery. Today, we don't have 
to win the legal battle; there's a law against it in every country. We don't have 
to win the economic argument; no economy is dependent on slavery (unlike 
in the 19th century, when whole industries could have collapsed). And we 
don't have to win the moral argument; no one is trying to justify it any more." 91 

The Age of Reason and the Enlightenment brought many violent institutions 
to a sudden end. Two others had more staying power, and were indulged in 
large parts of the world for another two centuries: tyranny, and war between 
major states. Though the first systematic movements to undermine these insti- 
tutions were nearly strangled in the crib and began to predominate only in 
our lifetimes, they originated in the grand change in thoughts and sensibili- 
ties that make up the Humanitarian Revolution, so I will introduce them here. 


A government, according to the famous characterization by the sociologist 
Max Weber, is an institution that holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of 
violence. Governments, then, are institutions that by their very nature are 
designed to carry out violence. Ideally this violence is held in reserve as a 
deterrent to criminals and invaders, but for millennia most governments 
showed no such restraint and indulged in violence exuberantly. 

All of the first complex states were despotisms in the sense of an "exercised 
right of heads of societies to murder their subjects arbitrarily and with impu- 
nity." 92 Evidence for despotism, Laura Betzig has shown, may be found in the 
records of the Babylonians, Hebrews, Imperial Romans, Samoans, Fijians, 
Khmer, Natchez, Aztecs, Incas, and nine African kingdoms. Despots put their 
power to good Darwinian use by living in luxury and enjoying the services 
of enormous harems. According to a report from the early days of the British 
colonization of India, "a party given by the Mogul governor of Surat . . . was 
rudely interrupted when the host fell into a sudden rage and ordered all the 


dancing girls to be decapitated on the spot, to the stupefaction of the English 
guests." 93 They could afford to be stupefied only because the mother country 
had recently put its own despotism behind it. When Henry VIII got into var- 
ious of his bad moods, he executed two wives, several of their suspected lov- 
ers, many of his own advisors (including Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell), 
the Bible translator William Tyndale, and tens of thousands of others. 

The power of despots to kill on a whim is the backdrop to stories told 
throughout the world. The wise King Solomon proposed to resolve a maternity 
dispute by butchering the baby in question. The backdrop to the Scheherazade 
story is a Persian king who murdered a new bride every day. The legendary 
King Narashimhadev in Orissa, India, demanded that exactly twelve hundred 
artisans build a temple in exactly twelve years or all would be executed. And 
in Dr. Seuss's The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, the protagonist is 
nearly beheaded for being unable to remove his hat in the presence of the king. 

He who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and in most of human history 
political murder— a challenger killing a leader and taking his place — was the 
primary mechanism for the transfer of power. 94 A political murderer differs 
from the modern assassin who tries to make a political statement, wants to go 
down in the history books, or is stark raving mad. Instead he is typically a 
member of the political elite, kills a leader to take over his position, and counts 
on his accession to be recognized as legitimate. Kings Saul, David, and Solomon 
were all targets or perpetrators of murder plots, and Julius Caesar was one of 
the thirty-four Roman emperors (out of the total of forty-nine that reigned until 
the division of the empire) who were killed by guards, high officials, or mem- 
bers of their own families. Manuel Eisner has calculated that between 600 and 
1800 CE, about one in eight European monarchs was murdered in office, mostly 
by noblemen, and that a third of the killers took over the throne. 95 

Political leaders not only kill each other, but commonly commit mass vio- 
lence against their citizenries. They may torture them, imprison them, execute 
them, starve them, or work them to death in pharaonic construction projects. 
Rummel estimates that governments killed 133 million people before the 20th 
century, and the total may be as high as 625 million. 96 So once raiding and 
feuding have been brought under control in a society, the greatest opportunity 
for reducing violence is reducing government violence. 

By the 17th and 18th centuries, many countries had begun to cut back on 
tyranny and political murder. 97 Between the early Middle Ages and 1800, Eis- 
ner calculates, the European regicide rate declined fivefold, particularly in 
Western and Northern Europe. A famous example of this change is the fate 
of the two Stuart kings who locked horns with the English Parliament. In 1649 
Charles I was beheaded, but in 1688 his son James II was deposed bloodlessly 
in the Glorious Revolution. Even after attempting to stage a coup he was merely 
forced into exile. By 1776 the American revolutionaries had defined "despo- 
tism" down to the level of taxing tea and quartering soldiers. 


At the same time that governments were gradually becoming less tyranni- 
cal, thinkers were seeking a principled way to reel in government violence to 
the minimum necessary. It began with a conceptual revolution. Instead of tak- 
ing government for granted as an organic part of the society, or as the local 
franchise of God's rule over his kingdom, people began to think of a govern- 
ment as a gadget — a piece of technology invented by humans for the purpose 
of enhancing their collective welfare. Of course, governments had never been 
deliberately invented, and they had been in place long before history was 
recorded, so this way of thinking required a considerable leap of the imagina- 
tion. Thinkers such as Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and Rousseau, and later Jef- 
ferson, Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams, fantasized about what life 
was like in a state of nature, and played out thought experiments about what 
a group of rational actors would come up with to better their lives. The result- 
ing institutions would clearly bear no resemblance to the theocracies and hered- 
itary monarchies of the day. It's hard to imagine a plausible simulation of 
rational actors in a state of nature choosing an arrangement that would give 
them the divine right of kings, "L'etat, c'est moi," or inbred ten-year-olds ascend- 
ing to the throne. Instead, the government would serve at the pleasure of the 
people it governed. Its power to "keep them all in awe," as Hobbes put it, was 
not a license to brutalize its citizens in pursuit of its own interests but only a 
mandate to implement the agreement "that a man be willing, when others are 
so too ... to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much 
liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself ." 98 

It's fair to say that Hobbes himself didn't think through the problem deeply 
enough. He imagined that somehow people would vest authority in a sover- 
eign or a committee once and for all at the dawn of time, and thereafter it 
would embody their interests so perfectly that they would never have reason 
to question it. One only has to think of a typical American congressman or 
member of the British royal family (to say nothing of a generalissimo or a com- 
missar) to see how this would be a recipe for disaster. Real-life Leviathans are 
human beings, with all the greed and foolishness we should expect of a spec- 
imen of Homo sapiens. Locke recognized that people in power would be 
tempted to "exempt themselves from the obedience to the Laws they make, 
and suit the Law, both in its making and its execution, to their own private 
Wish, and thereby come to have a distinct Interest from the rest of the Com- 
munity, contrary to the end of Society and Government ." 99 He called for a 
separation between the legislative and executive branches of government, and 
for the citizenry to reserve the power to throw out a government that was no 
longer carrying out its mandate. 

This line of thinking was taken to the next level by the heirs of Hobbes and 
Locke who hashed out a design for American constitutional government after 
years of study and debate. They were obsessed with the problem of how a 
ruling body composed of fallible humans could wield enough force to prevent 


citizens from preying on each other without arrogating so much that it would 
become the most destructive predator of all. 100 As Madison wrote, "If men were 
angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, 
neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." 101 
And so Locke's ideal of the separation of powers was written into the design 
of the new government, because "ambition must be made to counteract ambi- 
tion." 102 The result was the division of government into executive, judicial, and 
legislative branches, the federalist system in which authority was divided 
between the states and the national government, and periodic elections to 
force the government to give some attention to the wishes of the populace and 
to transfer power in an orderly and peaceable way. Perhaps most important, 
the government was given a circumscribed mission statement — to secure the 
life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of its citizens, with their consent — and, 
in the form of the Bill of Rights, a set of lines it could not cross in its use of 
violence against them. 

Yet another innovation of the American system was its explicit recognition 
of the pacifying effects of positive-sum cooperation. The ideal of gentle com- 
merce was implemented in the Commerce, Contract, and Takings clauses of 
the Constitution, which prevented the government from getting too much in 
the way of reciprocal exchanges among its citizens. 103 

The forms of democracy that were tried out in the 18th century were what 
you might expect of the 1.0 release of a complex new technology. The English 
implementation was weak tea, the French implementation an unmitigated 
disaster, and the American implementation had a flaw that is best captured 
in the actor Ice-T's impression of Thomas Jefferson reviewing a draft of the 
Constitution: "Let's see: freedom of speech; freedom of religion; freedom of 
the press; you can own niggers . . . Looks good to me!" But the value of the 
early designs for democracy was their upgradability. Not only did they carve 
out zones, however restricted, that were free of inquisitions, cruel punish- 
ments, and despotic authority, but they contained the means of their own 
expansion. The statement "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men 
are created equal," however hypocritical at the time, was a built-in rights- 
widener that could be invoked to end slavery four score and seven years later 
and other forms of racial coercion a century after that. The idea of democracy, 
once loosed on the world, would eventually infect larger and larger portions 
of it, and as we shall see, would turn out to be one of the greatest violence- 
reduction technologies since the appearance of government itself. 


For most of human history, the justification for war was pithily captured by 
Julius Caesar: "I came. I saw. I conquered." Conquest was what governments 
did. Empires rose, empires fell, entire populations were annihilated or 

162 the better angels of our nature 

enslaved, and no one seemed to think there was anything wrong with it. The 
historical figures who earned the honorific "So-and-So the Great" were not 
great artists, scholars, doctors, or inventors, people who enhanced human 
happiness or wisdom. They were dictators who conquered large swaths of 
territory and the people in them. If Hitler's luck had held out a bit longer, he 
probably would have gone down in history as Adolf the Great. Even today the 
standard histories of war teach the reader a great deal about horses and armor 
and gunpowder but give only the vaguest sense that immense numbers of 
people were killed and maimed in these extravaganzas. 

At the same time, there have always been eyes that zoom in to the scale of 
the individual women and men affected by war and that have seen its moral 
dimension. In the sth century BCE the Chinese philosopher Mozi, the founder 
of a rival religion to Confucianism and Taoism, noted: 

To kill one man is to be guilty of a capital crime, to kill ten men is to increase 
the guilt ten-fold, to kill a hundred men is to increase it a hundred-fold. This 
the rulers of the earth all recognize, and yet when it comes to the greatest 
crime — waging war on another state — they praise it! . . . 

If a man on seeing a little black were to say it is black, but on seeing a lot 
of black were to say it is white, it would be clear that such a man could not 
distinguish black and white. ... So those who recognize a small crime as 
such, but do not recognize the wickedness of the greatest crime of all — the 
waging of war on another state — but actually praise it — cannot distinguish 
right and wrong. 104 

The occasional Western seer too paid homage to the ideal of peace. The 
prophet Isaiah expressed the hope that "they shall beat their swords into 
plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword 
against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." 105 Jesus preached, "Love 
your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray 
for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him 
the other also." 106 Though Christianity began as a pacifist movement, things 
went downhill in 312 CE when the Roman ruler Constantine had a vision of 
a flaming cross in the sky with the words "In this sign thou shalt conquer" 
and converted the Roman Empire to this militant version of the faith. 

Periodic expressions of pacifism or war-weariness over the next millennium 
did nothing to stop the nearly constant state of warfare. According to the 
Encyclopaedia Britannica, the premises of international law during the Middle 
Ages were as follows: "In the absence of an agreed state of truce or peace, war 
was the basic state of international relations even between independent Chris- 
tian communities; (2) Unless exceptions were made by means of individual 
safe conduct or treaty, rulers saw themselves entitled to treat foreigners at 
their absolute discretion; (3) The high seas were no-man's-land, where anyone 


might do as he pleased." 107 In the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, wars broke 
out between European countries at a rate of about three new wars a year. 108 

The moral arguments against war are irrefutable. As the musician Edwin 
Starr put it, "War. Hunh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. War means 
tears to thousands of mothers' eyes, when their sons go to fight and lose their 
lives." But for most of history this argument has not caught on, for two reasons. 

One is the other-guy problem. If a nation decides not to learn war anymore, 
but its neighbor continues to do so, its pruning hooks will be no match for the 
neighbor's spears, and it may find itself at the wrong end of an invading army. 
This was the fate of Carthage against the Romans, India against Muslim invad- 
ers, the Cathars against the French and the Catholic Church, and the various 
countries stuck between Germany and Russia at many times in their history. 

Pacifism is also vulnerable to militaristic forces within a country. When a 
country is embroiled in a war or on the verge of one, its leaders have trouble 
distinguishing a pacifist from a coward or a traitor. The Anabaptists are one 
of many pacifist sects that have been persecuted throughout history. 109 

To gain traction, antiwar sentiments have to infect many constituencies at 
the same time. And they have to be grounded in economic and political insti- 
tutions, so that the war-averse outlook doesn't depend on everyone's deciding 
to become and stay virtuous. It was in the Age of Reason and the Enlighten- 
ment that pacifism evolved from a pious but ineffectual sentiment to a move- 
ment with a practicable agenda. 

One way to drive home the futility and evil of war is to tap the distancing 
power of satire. A moralizer can be mocked, a polemicist can be silenced, but 
a satirist can get the same point across through stealth. By luring an audience 
into taking the perspective of an outsider — a fool, a foreigner, a traveler — a 
satirist can make them appreciate the hypocrisy of their own society and the 
flaws in human nature that foster it. If the audience gets the joke, if the readers 
or viewers lose themselves in the work, they have tacitly acceded to the author's 
deconstruction of a norm without anyone having had to rebuff it in so many 
words. Shakespeare's Falstaff, for example, delivers the finest analysis ever 
expressed of the concept of honor, the source of so much violence over the 
course of human history. Prince Elal has urged him into battle, saying "Thou 
owest God a death." Falstaff muses: 

'Tis not due yet: I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be 
so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks 
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can 
honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? 
No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honour? A word. 
What is that word honour? Air — a trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died 
a Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis insensible then? 
Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction 

164 the better angels of our nature 

will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon — and 
so ends my catechism. 110 

Detraction will not suffer it! More than a century later, in 1759, Samuel 
Johnson imagined a Quebec Indian chief commenting on "the art and regu- 
larity of European war" in a speech to his people during the Seven Years' War: 

They have a written law among them, of which they boast as derived from him 
who made the earth and sea, and by which they profess to believe that man 
will be made happy when life shall forsake him. Why is not this law commu- 
nicated to us? It is concealed because it is violated. For how can they preach it 
to an Indian nation, when I am told that one of its first precepts forbids them 
to do to others what they would not that others should do to them. . . . 

The sons of rapacity have now drawn their swords upon each other, and 
referred their claims to the decision of war; let us look unconcerned upon 
the slaughter, and remember that the death of every European delivers the 
country from a tyrant and a robber; for what is the claim of either nation, 
but the claim of the vulture to the leveret, of the tiger to the fawn? 111 

(A leveret is a young hare.) Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) was the 
quintessential exercise in the shifting of vantage points, in this case from the 
Lilliputian to the Brobdingnagian. Swift has Gulliver describe the recent his- 
tory of his homeland to the King of Brobdingnag: 

He was perfectly astonished with the historical Account I gave him of our 
Affairs during the last Century, protesting it was only a Heap of Conspira- 
cies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments, the very 
worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, 
Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, or Ambition could produce. . . . 

"As for yourself," (continued the King), "who have spent the greatest Part 
of your Life in Travelling, I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have 
escaped many Vices of your Country. But by what I have gathered from your 
own Relation, and the Answers I have with much Pain wringed and extorted 
from you, I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives to be the most 
pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl 
upon the Surface of the Earth." 112 

Satires appeared in France as well. In one of his pensees, Blaise Pascal (1623- 
62) imagined the following dialogue: "Why are you killing me for your own 
benefit? I am unarmed." "Why, do you not live on the other side of the water? 
My friend, if you lived on this side, I should be a murderer, but since you live 
on the other side, I am a hero, and it is just." 113 Voltaire's Candide (1759) was 
another novel that slipped scathing antiwar commentary into the mouth of a 


fictitious character, such as the following definition of war: "A million assas- 
sins in uniform, roaming from one end of Europe to the other, murder and 
pillage with discipline in order to earn their daily bread." 

Together with satires suggesting that war was hypocritical and contempt- 
ible, the 18th century saw the appearance of theories holding that it was irra- 
tional and avoidable. One of the foremost was gentle commerce, the theory 
that the positive-sum payoff of trade should be more appealing than the zero- 
sum or negative-sum payoff of war. 114 Though the mathematics of game theory 
would not be available for another two hundred years, the key idea could be 
stated easily enough in words: Why spend money and blood to invade a coun- 
try and plunder its treasure when you can just buy it from them at less expense 
and sell them some of your own? The Abbe de Saint Pierre (1713), Montesquieu 
(1748), Adam Smith (1776), George Washington (1788), and Immanuel Kant 
(1795) were some of the writers who extolled free trade because it yoked the 
material interests of nations and thus encouraged them to value one another's 
well-being. As Kant put it, "The spirit of commerce sooner or later takes hold 
of every people, and it cannot exist side by side with war. . . . Thus states find 
themselves compelled to promote the noble cause of peace, though not exactly 
from motives of morality." 145 

As they did with slavery, Quakers founded activist groups that opposed 
the institution of war. Though the sect's commitment to nonviolence sprang 
from its religious belief that God speaks through individual human lives, it 
didn't hurt the cause that they were influential businessmen rather than ascetic 
Luddites, having founded, among other concerns, Lloyd's of London, Barclays 
Bank, and the colony of Pennsylvania. 116 

The most remarkable antiwar document of the era was Kant's 1795 essay 
"Perpetual Peace." 117 Kant was no dreamer; he began the essay with the self- 
deprecating confession that he took the title of his essay from the caption on 
an innkeeper's sign with a picture of a burial ground. He then laid out six pre- 
liminary steps toward perpetual peace, followed by three sweeping principles. 
The preliminary steps were that peace treaties should not leave open the option 
of war; that states should not absorb other states; that standing armies should 
be abolished; that governments should not borrow to finance wars; that a state 
should not interfere in the internal governance of another state; and that in war, 
states should avoid tactics that would undermine confidence in a future peace, 
such as assassinations, poisonings, and incitements to treason. 

More interesting were his "definitive articles." Kant was a strong believer 
in human nature; elsewhere he had written that "from the crooked timber of 
humanity no truly straight thing can be made." Thus he began from a Hobbes- 
ian premise: 

The state of peace among men living side by side is not the natural state; the 

natural state is one of war. This does not always mean open hostilities, but 


at least an unceasing threat of war. A state of peace, therefore, must be estab- 
lished, for in order to be secured against hostility it is not sufficient that 
hostilities simply be not committed; and, unless this security is pledged to 
each by his neighbor (a thing that can occur only in a civil state), each may 
treat his neighbor, from whom he demands this security, as an enemy. 

He then outlined his three conditions for perpetual peace. The first is that 
states should be democratic. Kant himself preferred the term republican, 
because he associated the word democracy with mob rule; what he had in mind 
was a government dedicated to freedom, equality, and the rule of law. Democ- 
racies are unlikely to fight each other, Kant argued, for two reasons. One is 
that a democracy is a form of government that by design ("having sprung from 
the pure source of the concept of law") is built around nonviolence. A demo- 
cratic government wields its power only to safeguard the rights of its citizens. 
Democracies, Kant reasoned, are apt to externalize this principle to their deal- 
ings with other nations, who are no more deserving of domination by force 
than are their own citizens. 

More important, democracies tend to avoid wars because the benefits of 
war go to a country's leaders whereas the costs are paid by its citizens. In an 
autocracy "a declaration of war is the easiest thing in the world to decide upon, 
because war does not require of the ruler, who is the proprietor and not a 
member of the state, the least sacrifice of the pleasures of his table, the chase, 
his country houses, his court functions, and the like. He may, therefore, resolve 
on war as on a pleasure party for the most trivial reasons." But if the citizens 
are in charge, they will think twice about wasting their own money and blood 
on a foolish foreign adventure. 

Kant's second condition for perpetual peace was that "the law of nations 
shall be founded on a Federation of Free States" — a "League of Nations," as he 
also called it. This federation, a kind of international Leviathan, would provide 
objective, third-party adjudication of disputes, circumventing every nation's 
tendency to believe that it is always in the right. Just as individuals accede to a 
social contract in which they surrender some of their freedom to the state to 
escape the nastiness of anarchy, so it should be with states: "For states in their 
relation to each other, there cannot be any reasonable way out of the lawless 
condition which entails only war except that they, like individual men, should 
give up their savage (lawless) freedom, adjust themselves to the constraints of 
public law, and thus establish a continuously growing state consisting of vari- 
ous nations which will ultimately include all the nations of the world." 

Kant didn't have in mind a world government with a global army. He 
thought that international laws could be self-enforcing. "The homage which 
each state pays (at least in words) to the concept of law proves that there is 
slumbering in man an even greater moral disposition to become master of the 
evil principle in himself (which he cannot disclaim) and to hope for the same 


from others." The author of "Perpetual Peace" was, after all, the same man 
who proposed the Categorical Imperative, which stated that people should 
act so that the maxim of their action can be universalized. This is all starting 
to sound a bit starry-eyed, but Kant brought the idea back to earth by tying it 
to the spread of democracy. Each of two democracies can recognize the valid- 
ity of the principles that govern the other. That sets them apart from theocra- 
cies, which are based on parochial faiths, and from autocracies, which are 
based on clans, dynasties, or charismatic leaders. In other words, if one state 
has reason to believe that a neighboring one organizes its political affairs in 
the same way that it does because both have stumbled upon the same solution 
to the problem of government, then neither has to worry about the other one 
attacking, neither will be tempted to attack the other in preemptive self- 
defense, and so on, freeing everyone from the Hobbesian trap. Today, for 
example, the Swedes don't stay up at night worrying that their neighbors are 
hatching plans for Norway Uber Alles, or vice versa. 

The third condition for perpetual peace is "universal hospitality" or "world 
citizenship." People from one country should be free to live in safety in others, 
as long as they don't bring an army in with them. The hope is that communi- 
cation, trade, and other "peaceable relations" across national boundaries will 
knit the world's people into a single community, so that a "violation of rights 
in one place is felt throughout the world." 

Obviously the satirists' deglorification of war and Kant's practical ideas on 
how to reduce it did not catch on widely enough to spare Western civilization 
the catastrophes of the next century and a half. But as we shall see, they planted 
the seeds of a movement that would blossom later and turn the world away 
from war. The new attitudes had an immediate impact as well. Historians 
have noted a change in the attitudes to war beginning around 1700. Leaders 
began to profess their love of peace and to claim that war had been forced 
upon them. 118 As Mueller notes, "No longer was it possible simply and honestly 
to proclaim like Julius Caesar, 'I came, I saw, I conquered.' Gradually this was 
changed to 'I came, I saw, he attacked me while I was just standing there look- 
ing, I won.' This might be seen as progress." 119 

More tangible progress was seen in the dwindling appeal of imperial 
power. In the 18th century some of the world's most bellicose nations, such as 
the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Denmark, and Portugal, reacted to military 
disappointments not by doubling down and plotting a return to glory but by 
dropping out of the conquest game, leaving war and empire to other countries 
and becoming commercial nations instead. 120 One of the results, as we shall 
see in the next chapter, was that wars between great powers became shorter, 
less frequent, and limited to fewer countries (though the advance of military 
organization meant that the wars that did occur were more damaging). 121 

And the greatest progress was yet to come. The extraordinary decline 
of major war in the last sixty years may be a delayed vindication of the 


ivory-tower theories of Immanuel Kant — if not "perpetual peace," then cer- 
tainly a "long peace," and one that keeps getting longer. As the great thinkers 
of the Enlightenment predicted, we owe this peace not just to the belittling of 
war but to the spread of democracy, the expansion of trade and commerce, 
and the growth of international organizations. 


We have seen that in the span of just over a century, cruel practices that 
had been a part of civilization for millennia were suddenly abolished. The 
killing of witches, the torture of prisoners, the persecution of heretics, the 
execution of nonconformists, and the enslavement of foreigners — all carried 
out with stomach-turning cruelty — quickly passed from the unexceptionable 
to the unthinkable. Payne remarks on how difficult it is to explain these 

The routes whereby uses of force are abandoned are often quite unexpected, 
even mysterious — so mysterious that one is sometimes tempted to allude 
to a higher power at work. Time and again one encounters violent practices 
so rooted and so self-reinforcing that it seems almost magical that they were 
overcome. One is reduced to pointing to "History" to explain how this 
immensely beneficial policy — a reduction in the use of force — has been 
gradually imposed on a human race that has neither consciously sought it 
nor agreed with it . 122 

One example of this mysterious, unsought progress is the long-term trend 
away from using force to punish debtors, which most people never realized 
was a trend. Another is the way that political murder had faded in English- 
speaking countries well before the principles of democracy had been articu- 
lated. In cases like these a nebulous shift in sensibilities may have been a 
prerequisite to consciously designed reforms. It's hard to imagine how a stable 
democracy can be implemented until competing factions give up the idea that 
murder is a good way to allocate power. The recent failure of democracy to 
take hold in many African and Islamic states is a reminder that a change in 
the norms surrounding violence has to precede a change in the nuts and bolts 
of governance . 123 

Still, a gradual shift in sensibilities is often incapable of changing actual 
practices until the change is implemented by the stroke of a pen. The slave 
trade, for example, was abolished as a result of moral agitation that persuaded 
men in power to pass laws and back them up with guns and ships . 124 Blood 
sports, public hangings, cruel punishments, and debtors' prisons were also 
shut down by acts of legislators who had been influenced by moral agitators 
and the public debates they began. 


In explaining the Humanitarian Revolution, then, we don't have to decide 
between unspoken norms and explicit moral argumentation. Each affects the 
other. As sensibilities change, thinkers who question a practice are more likely to 
materialize, and their arguments are more likely to get a hearing and then catch 
on. The arguments may not only persuade the people who wield the levers of 
power but infiltrate the culture's sensibilities by finding their way into barroom 
and dinner-table debates where they may shift the consensus one mind at a time. 
And when a practice has vanished from everyday experience because it was out- 
lawed from the top down, it may fall off the menu of live options in people's 
imaginations. Just as today smoking in offices and classrooms has passed from 
commonplace to prohibited to unthinkable, practices like slavery and public hang- 
ings, when enough time passed that no one alive could remember them, became 
so unimaginable that they were no longer brought up for debate. 

The most sweeping change in everyday sensibilities left by the Humanitar- 
ian Revolution is the reaction to suffering in other living things. People today 
are far from morally immaculate. They may covet nice objects, fantasize about 
sex with inappropriate partners, or want to kill someone who has humiliated 
them in public. 125 But other sinful desires no longer occur to people in the first 
place. Most people today have no desire to watch a cat burn to death, let alone 
a man or a woman. In that regard we are different from our ancestors of a few 
centuries ago, who approved, carried out, and even savored the infliction of 
unspeakable agony on other living beings. What were these people feeling? 
And why don't we feel it today? 

We won't be equipped to answer this question until we plunge into the 
psychology of sadism in chapter 8 and empathy in chapter 9. But for now we 
can look at some historical changes that militated against the indulgence of 
cruelty. As always, the challenge is to find an exogenous change that precedes 
the change in sensibilities and behavior so we can avoid the circularity of say- 
ing that people stopped doing cruel things because they got less cruel. What 
changed in people's environment that could have set off the Humanitarian 

The Civilizing Process is one candidate. Recall that Elias suggested that dur- 
ing the transition to modernity people not only exercised more self-control 
but also cultivated their sense of empathy. They did so not as an exercise in 
moral improvement but to hone their ability to get inside the heads of bureau- 
crats and merchants and prosper in a society that increasingly depended on 
networks of exchange rather than farming and plunder. Certainly the taste 
for cruelty clashes with the values of a cooperative society: it must be harder 
to work with your neighbors if you think they might enjoy seeing you disem- 
boweled. And the reduction in personal violence brought about by the Civiliz- 
ing Process may have lessened the demand for harsh punishments, just as 
today demands to "get tough on crime" rise and fall with the crime rate. 


Lynn Hunt, the historian of human rights, points to another knock-on effect 
of the Civilizing Process: the refinements in hygiene and manners, such as 
eating with utensils, having sex in private, and trying to keep one's effluvia 
out of view and off one's clothing. The enhanced decorum, she suggests, con- 
tributed to the sense that people are autonomous — that they own their bodies, 
which have an inherent integrity and are not a possession of society. Bodily 
integrity was increasingly seen as worthy of respect, as something that may 
not be breached at the expense of the person for the benefit of society. 

My own sensibilities tend toward the concrete, and I suspect there is a sim- 
pler hypothesis about the effect of cleanliness on moral sensibilities: people 
got less repulsive. Humans have a revulsion to filth and bodily secretions, and 
just as people today may avoid a homeless person who reeks of feces and urine, 
people in earlier centuries may have been more callous to their neighbors 
because those neighbors were more disgusting. Worse, people easily slip from 
visceral disgust to moralistic disgust and treat unsanitary things as contempt- 
ibly defiled and sordid. 126 Scholars of 20th-century atrocities have wondered 
how brutality can spring up so easily when one group achieves domination 
over another. The philosopher Jonathan Glover has pointed to a downward 
spiral of dehumanization. People force a despised minority to live in squalor, 
which makes them seem animalistic and subhuman, which encourages the 
dominant group to mistreat them further, which degrades them still further, 
removing any remaining tug on the oppressors' conscience. 127 Perhaps this 
spiral of dehumanization runs the movie of the Civilizing Process backwards. 
It reverses the historical sweep toward greater cleanliness and dignity that 
led, over the centuries, to greater respect for people's well-being. 

Unfortunately the Civilizing Process and the Humanitarian Revolution 
don't line up in time in a way that would suggest that one caused the other. 
The rise of government and commerce and the plummeting of homicide that 
propelled the Civilizing Process had been under way for several centuries 
without anyone much caring about the barbarity of punishments, the power 
of kings, or the violent suppression of heresy. Indeed as states became more 
powerful, they also got crueler. The use of torture to extract confessions (rather 
than to punish), for example, was reintroduced in the Middle Ages when many 
states revived Roman law. 128 Something else must have accelerated humanitar- 
ian sentiments in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

An alternative explanation is that people become more compassionate as their 
own lives improve. Payne speculates that "when people grow richer, so that 
they are better fed, healthier, and more comfortable, they come to value their 
own lives, and the lives of others, more highly." 129 The hypothesis that life used 
to be cheap but has become dearer loosely fits within the broad sweep of his- 
tory. Over the millennia the world has moved away from barbaric practices 
like human sacrifice and sadistic executions, and over the millennia people 


have been living longer and in greater comfort. Countries that were at the 
leading edge of the abolition of cruelty, such as 17th-century England and 
Holland, were also among the more affluent countries of their time. And today 
it is in the poorer corners of the world that we continue to find backwaters 
with slavery, superstitious killing, and other barbaric customs. 

But the life-was-cheap hypothesis also has some problems. Many of the 
more affluent states of their day, such as the Roman Empire, were hotbeds of 
sadism, and today harsh punishments like amputations and stonings may be 
found among the wealthy oil-exporting nations of the Middle East. A bigger 
problem is that the timing is off. The history of affluence in the modern West 
is depicted in figure 4-7, in which the economic historian Gregory Clark plots 
real income per person (calibrated in terms of how much money would be 
needed to buy a fixed amount of food) in England from 1200 to 2000. 

Affluence began its liftoff only with the advent of the Industrial Revolution 
in the 19th century. Before 1800 the mathematics of Malthus prevailed: any 
advance in producing food only bred more mouths to feed, leaving the popu- 
lation as poor as before. This was true not only in England but all over the 
world. Between 1200 and 1800 measures of economic well-being, such as 
income, calories per capita, protein per capita, and number of surviving chil- 
dren per woman, showed no upward trend in any European country. Indeed, 
they were barely above the levels of hunter-gatherer societies. Only when the 
Industrial Revolution introduced more efficient manufacturing techniques 
and built an infrastructure of canals and railroads did European economies 
start to shoot upward and the populace become more affluent. Yet the 

FIGURE 4-7. Real income per person in England, 1200-2000 
Source: Graph from Clark, 2007a, p. 195. 


humanitarian changes we are trying to explain began in the 17th century and 
were concentrated in the 18th. 

Even if we could show that affluence correlated with humanitarian sensi- 
bilities, it would be hard to pinpoint the reasons. Money does not just fill the 
belly and put a roof over one's head; it also buys better governments, higher 
rates of literacy, greater mobility, and other goods. Also, it's not completely 
obvious that poverty and misery should lead people to enjoy torturing others. 
One could just as easily make the opposite prediction: if you have firsthand 
experience of pain and deprivation, you should be unwilling to inflict them 
on others, whereas if you have lived a cushy life, the suffering of others is less 
real to you. I will return to the life-was-cheap hypothesis in the final chapter, 
but for now we must seek other candidates for an exogenous change that made 
people more compassionate. 

One technology that did show a precocious increase in productivity before 
the Industrial Revolution was book production. Before Gutenberg's invention 
of the printing press in 1452, every copy of a book had to be written out by 
hand. Not only was the process time-consuming — it took thirty-seven person- 
days to produce the equivalent of a 250-page book — but it was inefficient in 
materials and energy. Handwriting is harder to read than type is, and so 
handwritten books had to be larger, using up more paper and making the 
book more expensive to bind, store, and ship. In the two centuries after Guten- 
berg, publishing became a high-tech venture, and productivity in printing 
and papermaking grew more than twentyfold (figure 4-8), faster than the 
growth rate of the entire British economy during the Industrial Revolution.' 30 

FIGURE 4-8. Efficiency in book production in England, 1470-1860S 

Source: Graph from Clark, 2007a, p. 253. 


FIGURE 4-9. Number of books in English published per decade, 1475-1800 

Sources: Simons, 2001; graph adapted from http://en.wikipedia.0rg/wiki/File:1477-x799_ESTC 

The newly efficient publishing technology set off an explosion in book 
publication. Figure 4-9 shows that the number of books published per year 
rose significantly in the 17th century and shot up toward the end of the 18th. 

The books, moreover, were not just playthings for aristocrats and intellec- 
tuals. As the literary scholar Suzanne Keen notes, "By the late 18th century, 
circulating libraries had become widespread in London and provincial towns, 
and most of what they offered for rent was novels." 131 With more numerous 
and cheaper books available, people had a greater incentive to read. It's not 
easy to estimate the level of literacy in periods before the advent of universal 
schooling and standardized testing, but historians have used clever proxy 
measures such as the proportion of people who could sign their marriage 
registers or court declarations. Figure 4-10 presents a pair of time series from 
Clark which suggest that during the 17th century in England, rates of literacy 
doubled, and that by the end of the century a majority of Englishmen had 
learned to read and write. 132 

Literacy was increasing in other parts of Western Europe at the same time. 
By the late 18th century a majority of French citizens had become literate, and 
though estimates of literacy don't appear for other countries until later, they 
suggest that by the early 19th century a majority of men were literate in Den- 
mark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Scotland, Sweden, and Switzerland as well/ 33 
Not only were more people reading, but they were reading in different ways, 
a development the historian Rolf Engelsing has called the Reading Revolution/ 34 


FIGURE 4-io. Literacy rate in England, 1625-1925 

Source: Graph adapted from Clark, 2007a, p. 179. 

People began to read secular rather than just religious material, to read to 
themselves instead of in groups, and to read a wide range of topical media, 
such as pamphlets and periodicals, rather than rereading a few canonical texts 
like almanacs, devotional works, and the Bible. As the historian Robert Darn- 
ton put it, "The late eighteenth century does seem to represent a turning point, 
a time when more reading matter became available to a wider public, when 
one can see the emergence of a mass readership that would grow to giant 
proportions in the nineteenth century with the development of machine-made 
paper, steam-powered presses, linotype, and nearly universal literacy." 135 

And of course people in the 17th and 18th centuries had more to read about. 
The Scientific Revolution had revealed that everyday experience is a narrow 
slice of a vast continuum of scales from the microscopic to the astronomical, 
and that our own abode is a rock orbiting a star rather than the center of cre- 
ation. The European exploration of the Americas, Oceania, and Africa, and 
the discovery of sea routes to India and Asia, had opened up new worlds and 
revealed the existence of exotic peoples with ways of life very different from 
the readers' own. 

The growth of writing and literacy strikes me as the best candidate for an 
exogenous change that helped set off the Humanitarian Revolution. The pokey 
little world of village and clan, accessible through the five senses and informed 
by a single content provider, the church, gave way to a phantasmagoria of 
people, places, cultures, and ideas. And for several reasons, the expansion of 
people's minds could have added a dose of humanitarianism to their emotions 
and their beliefs. 



The human capacity for compassion is not a reflex that is triggered automati- 
cally by the presence of another living thing. As we shall see in chapter 9, 
though people in all cultures can react sympathetically to kin, friends, and 
babies, they tend to hold back when it comes to larger circles of neighbors, 
strangers, foreigners, and other sentient beings. In his book The Expanding 
Circle, the philosopher Peter Singer has argued that over the course of history, 
people have enlarged the range of beings whose interests they value as they 
value their own. 136 An interesting question is what inflated the empathy circle. 
And a good candidate is the expansion of literacy. 

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else's 
thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person's 
vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could 
not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person's mind and 
are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions. As we shall see, 
"empathy" in the sense of adopting someone's viewpoint is not the same as 
"empathy" in the sense of feeling compassion toward the person, but the first 
can lead to the second by a natural route. Stepping into someone else's vantage 
point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongo- 
ing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same 
as your own. It's not a big leap to suppose that the habit of reading other 
people's words could put one in the habit of entering other people's minds, 
including their pleasures and pains. Slipping even for a moment into the per- 
spective of someone who is turning black in a pillory or desperately pushing 
burning faggots away from her body or convulsing under the two hundredth 
stroke of the lash may give a person second thoughts as to whether these cru- 
elties should ever be visited upon anyone. 

Adopting other people's vantage points can alter one's convictions in other 
ways. Exposure to worlds that can be seen only through the eyes of a foreigner, 
an explorer, or a historian can turn an unquestioned norm ("That's the way 
it's done") into an explicit observation ("That's what our tribe happens to do 
now"). This self-consciousness is the first step toward asking whether the 
practice could be done in some other way. Also, learning that over the course 
of history the first can become last and the last can become first may instill 
the habit of mind that reminds us, "There but for fortune go I." 

The power of literacy to lift readers out of their parochial stations is not 
confined to factual writing. We have already seen how satirical fiction, which 
transports readers into a hypothetical world from which they can observe the 
follies of their own, may be an effective way to change people's sensibilities 
without haranguing or sermonizing. 

Realistic fiction, for its part, may expand readers' circle of empathy by 
seducing them into thinking and feeling like people very different from 


themselves. Literature students are taught that the 18th century was a turning 
point in the history of the novel. It became a form of mass entertainment, and 
by the end of the century almost a hundred new novels were published in 
England and France every year. 137 And unlike earlier epics which recounted 
the exploits of heroes, aristocrats, or saints, the novels brought to life the aspi- 
rations and losses of ordinary people. 

Lynn Hunt points out that the heyday of the Humanitarian Revolution, the 
late 18th century, was also the heyday of the epistolary novel. In this genre the 
story unfolds in a character's own words, exposing the character's thoughts 
and feelings in real time rather than describing them from the distancing per- 
spective of a disembodied narrator. In the middle of the century three melo- 
dramatic novels named after female protagonists became unlikely bestsellers: 
Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), and Rousseau's Julie, or 
the New Heldise (1761). Grown men burst into tears while experiencing the 
forbidden loves, intolerable arranged marriages, and cruel twists of fate in 
the lives of undistinguished women (including servants) with whom they had 
nothing in common. A retired military officer, writing to Rousseau, gushed: 

You have driven me crazy about her. Imagine then the tears that her death 
must have wrung from me. . . . Never have I wept such delicious tears. That 
reading created such a powerful effect on me that I believe I would have 
gladly died during that supreme moment. 138 

The philosophes of the Enlightenment extolled the way novels engaged a 
reader's identification with and sympathetic concern for others. In his eulogy 
for Richardson, Diderot wrote: 

One takes, despite all precautions, a role in his works, you are thrown into 
conversation, you approve, you blame, you admire, you become irritated, 
you feel indignant. How many times did I not surprise myself, as it happens 
to children who have been taken to the theater for the first time, crying': 
"Don't believe it, he is deceiving you.". . . His characters are taken from ordi- 
nary society . . . the passions he depicts are those I feel in myself. 139 

The clergy, of course, denounced these novels and placed several on the 
Index of Forbidden Books. One Catholic cleric wrote, "Open these works and 
you will see in almost all of them the rights of divine and human justice vio- 
lated, parents' authority over their children scorned, the sacred bonds of mar- 
riage and friendship broken." 140 

Hunt suggests a causal chain: reading epistolary novels about characters 
unlike oneself exercises the ability to put oneself in other people's shoes, which 
turns one against cruel punishments and other abuses of human rights. 
As usual, it is hard to rule out alternative explanations for the correlation. 


Perhaps people became more empathic for other reasons, which simultane- 
ously made them receptive to epistolary novels and concerned with others' 

But the full-strength causal hypothesis may be more than a fantasy of English 
teachers. The ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances 
in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the 
popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th 
century. And in some cases a bestselling novel or memoir demonstrably exposed 
a wide range of readers to the suffering of a forgotten class of victims and led 
to a change in policy. Around the same time that Uncle Tom's Cabin mobilized 
abolitionist sentiment in the United States, Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838) 
and Nicholas Nickleby (1839) opened people's eyes to the mistreatment of children 
in British workhouses and orphanages, and Richard Henry Dana's Two Years 
Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea (1840) and Herman Melville's 
White Jacket helped end the flogging of sailors. In the past century Erich Maria 
Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, George Orwell's 1984, Arthur Koest- 
ler's Darkness at Noon, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan De- 
nisovich, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Elie Wiesel's Night, Kurt Vonnegut's 
Slaughterhouse-Five, Alex Haley's Roots, Anchee Min's Red Azalea, Azar Nafisi's 
Reading Lolita in Tehran, and Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy (a novel 
that features female genital mutilation) all raised public awareness of the suf- 
fering of people who might otherwise have been ignored. 141 Cinema and televi- 
sion reached even larger audiences and offered experiences that were even more 
immediate. In chapter 9 we will learn of experiments that confirm that fictional 
narratives can evoke people's empathy and prick them to action. 

Whether or not novels in general, or epistolary novels in particular, were 
the critical genre in expanding empathy, the explosion of reading may have 
contributed to the Humanitarian Revolution by getting people into the habit 
of straying from their parochial vantage points. And it may have contributed 
in a second way: by creating a hothouse for new ideas about moral values and 
the social order. 


In David Lodge's 1988 novel Small World, a professor explains why he believes 
that the elite university has become obsolete: 

Information is much more portable in the modern world than it used to be. 

So are people. . . . There are three things which have revolutionized academic 
life in the last twenty years . . . : jet travel, direct-dialing telephones and the 
Xerox machine. ... As long as you have access to a telephone, a Xerox 
machine, and a conference grant fund, you're OK, you're plugged into the 
only university that really matters— the global campus. 142 


Morris Zapp had a point, but he overemphasized the technologies of the 
1980s. Two decades after his words were written, they have been superseded 
by e-mail, digital documents, Web sites, blogs, teleconferencing, Skype, and 
smartphones. And two centuries before they were written, the technologies of 
the day — the sailing ship, the printed book, and the postal service — had 
already made information and people portable. The result was the same: a 
global campus, a public sphere, or as it was called in the 17th and 18th centu- 
ries, the Republic of Letters. 

Any 21st-century reader who dips into intellectual history can't help but 
be impressed by the blogosphere of the 18th. No sooner did a book appear 
than it would sell out, get reprinted, get translated into half a dozen languages, 
and spawn a flurry of commentary in pamphlets, correspondence, and addi- 
tional books. Thinkers like Locke and Newton exchanged tens of thousands 
of letters; Voltaire alone wrote more than eighteen thousand, which now fill 
fifteen volumes.’ 43 Of course this colloquy unfolded on a scale that by today's 
standards was glacial — weeks, sometimes even months — but it was rapid 
enough that ideas could be broached, criticized, amalgamated, refined, and 
brought to the attention of people in power. A signature example is Beccaria's 
On Crimes and Punishments, which became an instant sensation and the impe- 
tus for the abolition of cruel punishments throughout Europe. 

Given enough time and purveyors, a marketplace of ideas can not only dis- 
seminate ideas but change their composition. No one is smart enough to figure 
out anything worthwhile from scratch. As Newton (hardly a humble man) 
conceded in a 1675 letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, "If I have' seen fur- 
ther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The human mind is adept at 
packaging a complicated idea into a chunk, combining it with other ideas into 
a more complex assembly, packaging that assembly into a still bigger contriv- 
ance, combining it with still other ideas, and so on. 144 But to do so it needs a 
steady supply of plug-ins and subassemblies, which can come only from a 
network of other minds. 

A global campus increases not only the complexity of ideas but their qual- 
ity. In hermetic isolation, all kinds of bizarre and toxic ideas can fester. Sunlight 
is the best disinfectant, and exposing a bad idea to the critical glare of other 
minds provides at least a chance that it will wither and die. Superstitions, 
dogmas, and legends ought to have a shorter half-life in a Republic of Letters, 
together with bad ideas about how to control crime or run a country. Setting 
fire to a person and seeing whether he burns is a dumb way to determine his 
guilt. Executing a woman for copulating with devils and turning them into 
cats is equally inane. And unless you are a hereditary absolutist monarch, you 
are unlikely to be persuaded that hereditary absolutist monarchy is the opti- 
mal form of government. 

The jet airplane is the only technology of Lodge's small world of 1988 that 
has not been made obsolete by the Internet, and that reminds us that 


sometimes there is no substitute for face-to-face communication. Airplanes 
can bring people together, but people who live in a city are already together, 
so cities have long been crucibles of ideas. Cosmopolitan cities can bring 
together a critical mass of diverse minds, and their nooks and crannies can 
offer places for mavericks to seek refuge. The Age of Reason and the Enlight- 
enment were also an age of urbanization. London, Paris, and Amsterdam 
became intellectual bazaars, and thinkers congregated in their salons, cof- 
feehouses, and bookstores to hash out the ideas of the day. 

Amsterdam played a special role as an arena of ideas. During the Dutch 
Golden Age in the 17th century it became a bustling port, open to the flow of 
goods, ideas, money, and people. It accommodated Catholics, Anabaptists, 
Protestants of various denominations, and Jews whose ancestors had been 
expelled from Portugal. It housed many book publishers, who did a brisk 
business printing controversial books and exporting them to the countries in 
which they had been banned. One Amsterdammer, Spinoza, subjected the 
Bible to literary analysis and developed a theory of everything that left no 
room for an animate God. In 1656 he was excommunicated by his Jewish com- 
munity, who, with memories of the Inquisition still fresh, were nervous about 
making waves among the surrounding Christians. 145 It was no tragedy for 
Spinoza, as it might have been if he had lived in an isolated village, because 
he just picked up and moved to a new neighborhood and from there to another 
tolerant Dutch city, Leiden. In both places he was welcomed into the commu- 
nity of writers, thinkers, and artists. John Locke used Amsterdam as a safe 
haven in 1683 after he had been suspected of taking part in a plot against King 
Charles II in England. Rene Descartes also changed addresses frequently, 
bouncing around Holland and Sweden whenever things got too hot. 

The economist Edward Glaeser has credited the rise of cities with the emer- 
gence of liberal democracy. 146 Oppressive autocrats can remain in power even 
when their citizens despise them because of a conundrum that economists 
call the social dilemma or free-rider problem. In a dictatorship, the autocrat 
and his henchmen have a strong incentive to stay in power, but no individual 
citizen has an incentive to depose him, because the rebel would assume all 
the risks of the dictator's reprisals while the benefits of democracy would flow 
diffusely to everyone in the country. The crucible of a city, however, can bring 
together financiers, lawyers, writers, publishers, and well-connected mer- 
chants who can collude in pubs and guild halls to challenge the current lead- 
ership, dividing the labor and diffusing the risk. Classical Athens, Renaissance 
Venice, revolutionary Boston and Philadelphia, and the cities of the Low Coun- 
tries are examples of cities where new democracies were gestated, and today 
urbanization and democracy tend to go together. 

The subversive power of the flow of information and people has never been 
lost on political and religious tyrants. That is why they suppress speech, writ- 
ing, and association, and why democracies protect these channels in their bills 


of rights. Before the rise of cities and literacy, liberating ideas had a harder 
time being conceived and amalgamated, and so the rise of cosmopolitanism 
in the 17th and 18th centuries deserves part of the credit for the Humanitarian 

Bringing people and ideas together, of course, does not determine how those 
ideas will evolve. The rise of the Republic of Letters and the cosmopolitan city 
cannot, by themselves, explain why a humanitarian ethics arose in the 18th 
century, rather than ever-more-ingenious rationales for torture, slavery, des- 
potism, and war. 

My own view is that the two developments really are linked. When a large 
enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should 
run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, 
their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don't have to explain 
why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases — given that 
they were doing their biology properly, and given that DNA really does have 
four bases, in the long run they could hardly have discovered anything else — 
we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue 
against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the exe- 
cution of witches and heretics. With enough scrutiny by disinterested, rational, 
and informed thinkers, these practices cannot be justified indefinitely. The 
universe of ideas, in which one idea entails others, is itself an exogenous force, 
and once a community of thinkers enters that universe, they will be forced 
in certain directions regardless of their material surroundings. I think this 
process of moral discovery was a significant cause of the Humanitarian 

I am prepared to take this line of explanation a step further. The reason so 
many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that 
the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged 
during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like 
Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, 
Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart 
Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism. 
(It is also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the 
word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well.) Here is a potted account 
of this philosophy — a rough but more or less coherent composite of the views 
of these Enlightenment thinkers. 

It begins with skepticism. 147 The history of human folly, and our own sus- 
ceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that men and women are fallible. 
One therefore ought to seek good reasons for believing something. Faith, rev- 
elation, tradition, dogma, authority, the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty — 
all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. 

Is there anything we can be certain of? Descartes gave as good an answer 


as any: our own consciousness. I know that I am conscious, by the very fact 
of wondering what I can know, and I can also know that my consciousness 
comprises several kinds of experience. These include the perception of an 
external world and of other people, and various pleasures and pains, both 
sensual (such as food, comfort, and sex) and spiritual (such as love, knowledge, 
and an appreciation of beauty). 

We are also committed to reason. If we are asking a question, evaluating 
possible answers, and trying to persuade others of the value of those answers, 
then we are reasoning, and therefore have tacitly signed on to the validity of 
reason. We are also committed to whatever conclusions follow from the care- 
ful application of reason, such as the theorems of mathematics and logic. 

Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we 
are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it. The application of 
reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world 
is what we call science. The progress of science, with its dazzling success at 
explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe 
is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus 
a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge — not the particular methods 
or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the 
world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of 
the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time. 

The indispensability of reason does not imply that individual people are 
always rational or are unswayed by passion and illusion. It only means that 
people are capable of reason, and that a community of people who choose to 
perfect this faculty and to exercise it openly and fairly can collectively reason 
their way to sounder conclusions in the long run. As Lincoln observed, you 
can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people 
all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. 

Among the beliefs about the world of which we can be highly confident is 
that other people are conscious in the same way that we are. Other people are 
made of the same stuff, seek the same kinds of goals, and react with external 
signs of pleasure and pain to the kinds of events that cause pain and pleasure 
in each of us. 

By the same reasoning, we can infer that people who are different from us 
in many superficial ways — their gender, their race, their culture — are like us 
in fundamental ways. As Shakespeare's Shylock asks: 

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, 
affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, 
subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled 
by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we 
not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? 
and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? 


The commonality of basic human responses across cultures has profound 
implications. One is that there is a universal human nature. It encompasses 
our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and 
our common vulnerability to folly (not least the desire for revenge). Human 
nature may be studied, just as anything else in the world may be. And our 
decisions on how to organize our lives can take the facts of human nature into 
account — including the discounting of our own intuitions when a scientific 
understanding casts them in doubt. 

The other implication of our psychological commonality is that however 
much people differ, there can be, in principle, a meeting of the minds. I can 
appeal to your reason and try to persuade you, applying standards of logic 
and evidence that both of us are committed to by the very fact that we are both 
reasoning beings. 

The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a 
place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me — to get 
off my foot, or not to stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from 
drowning — then I can't do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours 
if I want you to take me seriously (say, by retaining my right to stand on your 
foot, or to stab you, or to let your children drown). I have to state my case in a 
way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can't act as if my interests are 
special just because I'm me and you're not, any more than I can persuade you 
that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I 
happen to be standing on it . 148 

You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have 
a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only 
way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. You and I are both better off 
if we share our surpluses, rescue each other's children when they get into 
trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded 
our surpluses while they rotted, let each other's children drown, and feuded 
incessantly. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense 
and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of 
us tried for these advantages, we'd both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, 
and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that 
the state we should aim for is the one where we both are unselfish. 

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful 
deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture 
or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the 
opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of 
morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been 
discovered by the world's major religions, and also in Spinoza's Viewpoint of 
Eternity, Kant's Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau's Social Con- 
tract, and Locke and Jefferson's self-evident truth that all people are created 


From the factual knowledge that there is a universal human nature, and the 
moral principle that no person has grounds for privileging his or her interests 
over others', we can deduce a great deal about how we ought to run our affairs. 
A government is a good thing to have, because in a state of anarchy people's 
self-interest, self-deception, and fear of these shortcomings in others would lead 
to constant strife. People are better off abjuring violence, if everyone else agrees 
to do so, and vesting authority in a disinterested third party. But since that third 
party will consist of human beings, not angels, their power must be checked by 
the power of other people, to force them to govern with the consent of the gov- 
erned. They may not use violence against their citizens beyond the minimum 
necessary to prevent greater violence. And they should foster arrangements that 
allow people to flourish from cooperation and voluntary exchange. 

This line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it 
recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied. 
I experience pleasures and pains, and pursue goals in service of them, so I 
cannot reasonably deny the right of other sentient agents to do the same. 

If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlighten- 
ment, and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, 
there is nothing banal or obvious about it. Though not necessarily atheistic (it 
is compatible with a deism in which God is identified with the nature of the 
universe). Enlightenment humanism makes no use of scripture, Jesus, ritual, 
religious law, divine purpose, immortal souls, an afterlife, a messianic age, or 
a God who responds to individual people. It sweeps aside many secular sources 
of value as well, if they cannot be shown to be necessary for the enhancement 
of human flourishing. These include the prestige of the nation, race, or class; 
fetishized virtues such as manliness, dignity, heroism, glory, and honor; and 
other mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, and struggles. 

I would argue that Enlightenment humanism, whether invoked explicitly 
or implicitly, underlay the diverse humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th 
centuries. The philosophy was explicitly invoked in the design of the first 
liberal democracies, most transparently in the "self-evident truths" in the 
American Declaration of Independence. Later it would spread to other parts 
of the world, blended with humanistic arguments that had arisen indepen- 
dently in those civilizations. 149 And as we shall see in chapter 7, it regained 
momentum during the Rights Revolutions of the present era. 

For all that. Enlightenment humanism did not, at first, carry the day. Though 
it helped to eliminate many barbaric practices and established beachheads in 
the first liberal democracies, its full implications were roundly rejected in 
much of the world. One objection arose from a tension between the forces of 
enlightenment we have been exploring in this chapter and the forces of civi- 
lization we explored in the previous one — though as we shall see, it is not 
difficult to reconcile the two. The other objection was more foundational, and 
its consequences more fateful. 

184 the better angels of our nature 


On the heels of the Enlightenment came the French Revolution: a brief prom- 
ise of democracy followed by a train of regicides, putsches, fanatics, mobs, 
terrors, and preemptive wars, culminating in a megalomaniacal emperor and 
an insane war of conquest. More than a quarter of a million people were killed 
in the Revolution and its aftermath, and another 2 to 4 million were killed in 
the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. In reflecting on this catastrophe, it 
was natural for people to reason, "After this, therefore because of this," and 
for intellectuals on the right and the left to blame the Enlightenment. This is 
what you get, they say, when you eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, steal 
fire from the gods, and open Pandora's box. 

The theory that the Enlightenment was responsible for the Terror and Napo- 
leon is, to put it mildly, dubious. Political murder, massacre, and wars of impe- 
rial expansion are as old as civilization, and had long been the everyday stuff 
of European monarchies, including that of France. Many of the French philo- 
sophes from whom the revolutionaries drew their inspiration were intellectual 
lightweights and did not represent the stream of reasoning that connected 
Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, and Kant. The American Revolu- 
tion, which stuck more closely to the Enlightenment script, gave the world a 
liberal democracy that has lasted more than two centuries. Toward the end of 
this book I will argue that the data on the historical decline of violence vindicate 
Enlightenment humanism and refute its critics on the right and the left. But 
one of these critics, the Anglo-Irish writer Edmund Burke, deserves our atten- 
tion, because his argument appeals to the other major explanation for the 
decline of violence, the civilizing process. The two explanations overlap — both 
appeal to an expansion of empathy and to the pacifying effects of positive-sum 
cooperation — but they differ in which aspect of human nature they emphasize. 

Burke was the father of intellectual secular conservatism, which is based 
on what the economist Thomas Sowell has called a tragic vision of human 
nature. 150 In that vision, human beings are permanently saddled with limita- 
tions of knowledge, wisdom, and virtue. People are selfish and shortsighted, 
and if they are left to their own devices, they will plunge into a Hobbesian 
war of all against all. The only things that keep people from falling into this 
abyss are the habits of self-control and social harmony they absorb when they 
conform to the norms of a civilized society. Social customs, religious tradi- 
tions, sexual mores, family structures, and long-standing political institutions, 
even if no one can articulate their rationale, are time-tested work-arounds for 
the shortcomings of an unchanging human nature and are as indispensable 
today as when they lifted us out of barbarism. 

According to Burke, no mortal is smart enough to design a society from 
first principles. A society is an organic system that develops spontaneously, 
governed by myriad interactions and adjustments that no human mind can 


pretend to understand. Just because we cannot capture its workings in verbal 
propositions does not mean it should be scrapped and reinvented according 
to the fashionable theories of the day. Such ham-fisted tinkering will only lead 
to unintended consequences, culminating in violent chaos. 

Burke clearly went too far. It would be mad to say that people should never 
have agitated against torture, witch hunts, and slavery because these were 
long-standing traditions and that if they were suddenly abolished society 
would descend into savagery. The practices themselves were savage, and as 
we have seen, societies find ways to compensate for the disappearance of vio- 
lent practices that were once thought to be indispensable. Humanitarianism 
can be the mother of invention. 

But Burke had a point. Unspoken norms of civilized behavior, both in every- 
day interactions and in the conduct of government, may be a prerequisite to 
implementing certain reforms successfully. The development of these norms 
may be the mysterious "historical forces" that Payne remarked on, such as the 
spontaneous fading of political murder well before the principles of democracy 
had been articulated, and the sequence in which some abolition movements 
gave the coup de grace to practices that were already in decline. They may 
explain why today it is so hard to impose liberal democracy on countries in 
the developing world that have not outgrown their superstitions, warlords, 
and feuding tribes . 151 

Civilization and Enlightenment need not be alternatives in explaining 
declines of violence. In some periods, tacit norms of empathy, self-control, and 
cooperation may take the lead, and rationally articulated principles of equal- 
ity, nonviolence, and human rights may follow. In other periods, it may go in 
the other direction. 

This to-and-fro may explain why the American Revolution was not as 
calamitous as its French counterpart. The Founders were products not just of 
the Enlightenment but of the English Civilizing Process, and self-control and 
cooperation had become second nature to them. "A decent respect to the opin- 
ions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel 
them to the separation," the Declaration politely explains. "Prudence, indeed, 
will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light 
and transient causes." Prudence, indeed. 

But their decency and prudence were more than mindless habits. The 
Founders consciously deliberated about just those limitations of human nature 
that made Burke so nervous about conscious deliberation. "What is govern- 
ment itself," asked Madison, "but the greatest of all reflections on human 
nature ?" 152 Democracy, in their vision, had to be designed to counteract the 
vices of human nature, particularly the temptation in leaders to abuse their 
power. An acknowledgment of human nature may have been the chief differ- 
ence between the American revolutionaries and their French confreres, who 
had the romantic conviction that they were rendering human limitations 


obsolete. In 1794 Maximilien Robespierre, architect of the Terror, wrote, "The 
French people seem to have outstripped the rest of humanity by two thousand 
years; one might be tempted to regard them, living amongst them, as a differ- 
ent species." 153 

In The Blank Slate I argued that two extreme visions of human nature — a 
Tragic vision that is resigned to its flaws, and a Utopian vision that denies it 
exists — define the great divide between right-wing and left-wing political 
ideologies. 154 And I suggested that a better understanding of human nature 
in the light of modern science can point the way to an approach to politics that 
is more sophisticated than either. The human mind is not a blank slate, and 
no humane political system should be allowed to deify its leaders or remake 
its citizens. Yet for all its limitations, human nature includes a recursive, open- 
ended, combinatorial system for reasoning, which can take cognizance of its 
own limitations. That is why the engine of Enlightenment humanism, ratio- 
nality, can never be refuted by some flaw or error in the reasoning of the 
people in a given era. Reason can always stand back, take note of the flaw, and 
revise its rules so as not to succumb to it the next time. 


A second counter-Enlightenment movement took root in the late 18th and 
early 19th centuries and was centered not in England but in Germany. The 
various strands have been explored in an essay by Isaiah Berlin and a book 
by the philosopher Graeme Garrard.’ 55 This counter-Enlightenment originated 
with Rousseau and was developed by theologians, poets, and essayists such 
as Johann Hamann, Friedrich Jacobi, Johann Herder, and Friedrich Schelling. 
Its target was not, as it was for Burke, the unintended consequences of Enlight- 
enment reason for social stability, but the foundations of reason itself. 

The first mistake, they said, was to start from the consciousness of an indi- 
vidual mind. The disembodied individual reasoner, ripped from his culture 
and its history, is a figment of the Enlightenment thinker's imagination. A 
person is not a locus of abstract cogitation — a brain on a stick — but a body 
with emotions and a part of the fabric of nature. 

The second mistake was to posit a universal human nature and a univer- 
sally valid system of reasoning. People are embedded in a culture and find 
meaning in its myths, symbols, and epics. Truth does not reside in proposi- 
tions in the sky, there for everyone to see, but is situated in narratives and 
archetypes that are particular to the history of a place and give meaning to 
the lives of its inhabitants. 

In this way of thinking, for a rational analyst to criticize traditional beliefs 
or customs is to miss the point. Only if one enters into the experience of those 
who live by those beliefs can one truly understand them. The Bible, for 
example, can be appreciated only by reproducing the experience of ancient 


shepherds in the Judaean hills. Every culture has a unique Schwerpunkt, a 
center of gravity, and unless we try to occupy it, we cannot comprehend its 
meaning and value. 156 Cosmopolitanism, far from being a virtue, is a "shed- 
ding of all that makes one most human, most oneself." 157 Universality, objec- 
tivity, and rationality are out; romanticism, vitalism, intuition, and 
irrationalism are in. Herder summed up the Sturm und Drang (storm and 
impulse) movement he helped to inspire: "I am not here to think, but to be, 
feel, live! . . . Heart! Warmth! Blood! Humanity! Life!" 158 

A child of the counter-Enlightenment, then, does not pursue a goal because 
it is objectively true or virtuous, but because it is a unique product of one's 
creativity. The wellspring of creativity may be in one's own true self, as the 
Romantic painters and writers insisted, or it may be in some kind of transcen- 
dent entity: a cosmic spirit, a divine flame. Berlin elaborates: 

Others again identified the creative self with a super-personal "organism" 
of which they saw themselves as elements or members — nation, or church, 
or culture, or class, or history itself, a mighty force of which they conceived 
their earthly selves as emanations. Aggressive nationalism, self-identification 
with the interests of the class, the culture or the race, or the forces of 
progress— with the wave of the future-directed dynamism of history, some- 
thing that at once explains and justifies acts which might be abhorred or 
despised if committed from calculation of selfish advantage or some other 
mundane motive — this family of political and moral conceptions is so many 
expressions of a doctrine of self-realization based on defiant rejection of the 
central theses of the Enlightenment, according to which what is true, or right, 
or good, or beautiful, can be shown to be valid for all men by the correct 
application of objective methods of discovery and interpretation, open to 
anyone to use and verify. 159 

The counter-Enlightenment also rejected the assumption that violence was 
a problem to be solved. Struggle and bloodshed are inherent in the natural 
order, and cannot be eliminated without draining life of its vitality and sub- 
verting the destiny of mankind. As Herder put it, "Men desire harmony, but 
nature knows better what is good for the species: it desires strife." 160 The glo- 
rification of the struggle in "nature red in tooth and claw" (as Tennyson had 
put it) was a pervasive theme in 19th-century art and writing. Later it would 
be retrofitted with a scientific patina in the form of "social Darwinism," though 
the connection with Darwin is anachronistic and unjust: The Origin of Species 
was published in 1859, long after romantic struggleism had become a popular 
philosophy, and Darwin himself was a thoroughgoing liberal humanist. 161 

The counter-Enlightenment was the wellspring of a family of romantic 
movements that gained strength during the 19th century. Some of them influ- 
enced the arts and gave us sublime music and poetry. Others became political 


ideologies and led to horrendous reversals in the trend of declining violence. 
One of these ideologies was a form of militant nationalism that came to be 
known as "blood and soil" — the notion that an ethnic group and the land from 
which it originated form an organic whole with unique moral qualities, and 
that its grandeur and glory are more precious than the lives and happiness of 
its individual members. Another was romantic militarism, the idea that (as 
Mueller has summarized it) "war is noble, uplifting, virtuous, glorious, heroic, 
exciting, beautiful, holy, thrilling ." 162 A third was Marxist socialism, in which 
history is a glorious struggle between classes, culminating in the subjugation 
of the bourgeoisie and the supremacy of the proletariat. And a fourth was 
National Socialism, in which history is a glorious struggle between races, cul- 
minating in the subjugation of inferior races and the supremacy of the Aryans. 

The Humanitarian Revolution was a milestone in the historical reduction 
of violence and is one of humanity's proudest achievements. Superstitious 
killing, cruel punishments, frivolous executions, and chattel slavery may not 
have been obliterated from the face of the earth, but they have certainly been 
pushed to the margins. And despotism and major war, which had cast their 
shadow on humanity since the beginning of civilization, began to show cracks. 
The philosophy of Enlightenment humanism that united these developments 
got a toehold in the West and bided its time until more violent ideologies 
tragically ran their course. 


War appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention. 

— Henry Maine 

I n the early 1950s, two eminent British scholars reflected on the history of war 
and ventured predictions on what the world should expect in the years to 
come. One of them was Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), perhaps the most famous 
historian of the 20th century. Toynbee had served in the British Foreign Office 
during both world wars, had represented the government at the peace confer- 
ences following each one, and had been chronicling the rise and fall of twenty- 
six civilizations in his monumental twelve-volume work A Study of History. 
The patterns of history, as he saw them in 1950, did not leave him optimistic: 

In our recent Western history war has been following war in an ascending 
order of intensity; and today it is already apparent that the War of 1939-45 
was not the climax of this crescendo movement. 1 

Writing in the shadow of World War II and at the dawn of the Cold War and 
the nuclear age, Toynbee could certainly be forgiven for his bleak prognostica- 
tion. Many other distinguished commentators were equally pessimistic, and 
predictions of an imminent doomsday continued for another three decades. 2 

The other scholar's qualifications could not be more different. Lewis Fry 
Richardson (1881-1953) was a physicist, meteorologist, psychologist, and applied 
mathematician. His main claim to fame had been devising numerical tech- 
niques for predicting the weather, decades before there were computers pow- 
erful enough to implement them. 3 Richardson's own prediction about the future 
came not from erudition about great civilizations but from statistical analysis 
of a dataset of hundreds of violent conflicts spanning more than a century. 
Richardson was more circumspect than Toynbee, and more optimistic. 

The occurrence of two world wars in the present century is apt to leave us 
with the vague belief that the world has become more warlike. But this belief 


needs logical scrutiny. A long future may perhaps be coming without a third 
world war in it . 4 

Richardson chose statistics over impressions to defy the common understand- 
ing that global nuclear war was a certainty. More than half a century later, we 
know that the eminent historian was wrong and the obscure physicist was 

This chapter is about the full story behind Richardson's prescience: the 
trends in war between major nations, culminating in the unexpected good 
news that the apparent crescendo of war did not continue to a new climax. 
During the last two decades, the world's attention has shifted to other kinds 
of conflict, including wars in smaller countries, civil wars, genocides, and 
terrorism; they will be covered in the following chapter. 


The 20th century would seem to be an insult to the very suggestion that vio- 
lence has declined over the course of history. Commonly labeled the most 
violent century in history, its first half saw a cascade of world wars, civil wars, 
and genocides that Matthew White has called the Hemoclysm, the blood-flood . 5 
The Hemoclysm was not just an unfathomable tragedy in its human toll but 
an upheaval in humanity's understanding of its historical movement. The 
Enlightenment hope for progress led by science and reason gave way to a sheaf 
of grim diagnoses: the recrudescence of a death instinct, the trial of modernity, 
an indictment of Western civilization, man's Faustian bargain with science 
and technology . 6 

But a century is made up of a hundred years, not fifty. The second half of 
the 20th century saw a historically unprecedented avoidance of war between 
the great powers which the historian John Gaddis has called the Long Peace, 
followed by the equally astonishing fizzling out of the Cold War . 7 How can 
we make sense of the multiple personalities of this twisted century? And what 
can we conclude about the prospects for war and peace in the present one? 

The competing predictions of Toynbee the historian and Richardson the 
physicist represent complementary ways of understanding the flow of events 
in time. Traditional history is a narrative of the past. But if we are to heed 
George Santayana's advisory to remember the past so as not to repeat it, we 
need to discern patterns in the past, so we can know what to generalize to the 
predicaments of the present. Inducing generalizable patterns from a finite set 
of observations is the stock in trade of the scientist, and some of the lessons of 
pattern extraction in science may be applied to the data of history. 

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that World War II was the most destruc- 
tive event in history. (Or if you prefer, suppose that the entire Hemoclysm 
deserves that designation, if you consider the two world wars and their 


associated genocides to be a single protracted historical episode.) What does 
that tell us about long-term trends in war and peace? 

The answer is: nothing. The most destructive event in history had to take 
place in some century, and it could be embedded in any of a large number of 
very different long-term trends. Toynbee assumed that World War II was a 
step in an escalating staircase, as in the left panel in figure 5-1. Almost as 
gloomy is the common suggestion that epochs of war are cyclical, as in the 
right panel of figure 5-1. Like many depressing prospects, both models have 
spawned some black humor. I am often asked if I've heard the one about the 
man who fell off the roof of an office building and shouted to the workers 
on each floor, "So far so good!" I have also been told (several times) about the 
turkey who, on the eve of Thanksgiving, remarked on the extraordinary 
364-day era of peace between farmers and turkeys he is lucky enough to be 
living in. 8 

But are the processes of history really as deterministic as the law of gravity 
or the cycling of the planet? Mathematicians tells us that an infinite number 
of curves can be drawn through any finite set of points. Figure 5-2 shows two 
other curves which situate the same episode in very different narratives. 

The left panel depicts the radical possibility that World War II was a statis- 
tical fluke — that it was neither a step in an escalating series nor a harbinger 
of things to come, and not part of a trend at all. At first the suggestion seems 
preposterous. How could a random unfolding of events in time result in so 
many catastrophes being bunched together in just a decade: the brutal inva- 
sions by Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Imperial Japan; the Holocaust; Stalin's 
purge; the Gulag; and two atomic explosions (to say nothing of World War I 
and the wars and genocides of the preceding two decades)? Also, the usual 
wars we find in history books tend to have death tolls in the tens or hundreds 
of thousands or, very rarely, in the millions. If wars really broke out at random, 

FIGURE 5-1. Two pessimistic possibilities for historical trends in war 



FIGURE 5-2. Two less pessimistic possibilities for historical trends in war 

shouldn't a war that led to the deaths of 55 million people be astronomically 
improbable? Richardson showed that both these intuitions are cognitive illu- 
sions. When the iron dice begin to roll (as the German chancellor Theobald 
von Bethmann-Hollweg put it on the eve of World War I), the unlucky out- 
comes can be far worse than our primitive imaginations foresee. 

The right-hand panel in figure 5-2 places the war in a narrative that is so 
unpessimistic that it's almost optimistic. Could World War II be an isolated 
peak in a declining sawtooth — the last gasp in a long slide of major war into 
historical obsolescence? Again, we will see that this possibility is not as dreamy 
as it sounds. 

The long-term trajectory of war, in reality, is likely to be a superimposition 
of several trends. We all know that patterns in other complex sequences, such 
as the weather, are a composite of several curves: the cyclical rhythm of the 
seasons, the randomness of daily fluctuations, the long-term trend of global 
warming. The goal of this chapter is to identify the components of the long- 
term trends in wars between states. I will try to persuade you that they are as 

• No cycles. 

• A big dose of randomness. 

• An escalation, recently reversed, in the destructiveness of war. 

• Declines in every other dimension of war, and thus in interstate war as a 


The 20th century, then, was not a permanent plunge into depravity. On the 
contrary, the enduring moral trend of the century was a violence-averse 
humanism that originated in the Enlightenment, became overshadowed by 
counter-Enlightenment ideologies wedded to agents of growing destructive 
power, and regained momentum in the wake of World War II. 


To reach these conclusions, I will blend the two ways of understanding the 
trajectory of war: the statistics of Richardson and his heirs, and the narratives 
of traditional historians and political scientists. The statistical approach is 
necessary to avoid Toynbee's fallacy: the all-too-human tendency to halluci- 
nate grand patterns in complex statistical phenomena and confidently extrap- 
olate them into the future. But if narratives without statistics are blind, 
statistics without narratives are empty. History is not a screen saver with pretty 
curves generated by equations; the curves are abstractions over real events 
involving the decisions of people and the effects of their weapons. So we also 
need to explain how the various staircases, ramps, and sawtooths we see in 
the graphs emerge from the behavior of leaders, soldiers, bayonets, and bombs. 
In the course of the chapter, the ingredients of the blend will shift from the 
statistical to the narrative, but neither is dispensable in understanding some- 
thing as complex as the long-term trajectory of war. 


"The twentieth century was the bloodiest in history" is a cliche that has been 
used to indict a vast range of demons, including atheism, Darwin, government, 
science, capitalism, communism, the ideal of progress, and the male gender. 
But is it true? The claim is rarely backed up by numbers from any century 
other than the 20th, or by a mention of the hemoclysms of centuries past. The 
truth is that we will never really know which was the worst century, because 
it's hard enough to pin down death tolls in the 20th century, let alone earlier 
ones. But there are two reasons to suspect that the bloodiest-century factoid 
is an illusion. 

The first is that while the 20th century certainly had more violent deaths 
than earlier ones, it also had more people. The population of the world in 1950 
was 2.5 billion, which is about two and a half times the population in 1800, 
four and a half times that in 1600, seven times that in 1300, and fifteen times 
that of 1 CE. So the death count of a war in 1600, for instance, would have to be 
multiplied by 4.5 for us to compare its destructiveness to those in the middle 
of the 20th century. 9 

The second illusion is historical myopia: the closer an era is to our vantage 
point in the present, the more details we can make out. Historical myopia can 
afflict both common sense and professional history. The cognitive psycholo- 
gists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown that people intuitively 
estimate relative frequency using a shortcut called the availability heuristic: 
the easier it is to recall examples of an event, the more probable people think it 
is. 10 People, for example, overestimate the likelihoods of the kinds of accidents 
that make headlines, such as plane crashes, shark attacks, and terrorist bomb- 
ings, and they underestimate those that pile up unremarked, like electrocu- 
tions, falls, and drownings.” When we are judging the density of killings 


in different centuries, anyone who doesn't consult the numbers is apt to over- 
weight the conflicts that are most recent, most stuciied, or most sermonized. 
In a survey of historical memory, I asked a hundred Internet users to write 
down as many wars as they could remember in five minutes. The responses 
were heavily weighted toward the world wars, wars fought by the United 
States, and wars close to the present. Though the earlier centuries, as we shall 
see, had far more wars, people remembered more wars from the recent centuries. 

When one corrects for the availability bias and the 20th-century population 
explosion by rooting around in history books and scaling the death tolls by 
the world population at the time, one comes across many wars and massacres 
that could hold their head high among 20th-century atrocities. The table on 
page 195 is a list from White called "(Possibly) The Twenty (or so) Worst Things 
People Have Done to Each Other." 1 - Each death toll is the median or mode of 
the figures cited in a large number of histories and encyclopedias. They include 
not just deaths on the battlefield but indirect deaths of civilians from starva- 
tion and disease; they are thus considerably higher than estimates of battlefield 
casualties, though consistently so for both recent and ancient events. I have 
added two columns that scale the death tolls and adjust the rankings to what 
they would be if the world at the time had had the population it did in the 
middle of the 20th century. 

First of all: had you even heard of all of them? (I hadn't.) Second, did you 
know there were five wars and four atrocities before World War I that killed 
more people than that war? I suspect many readers will also be surprised to 
learn that of the twenty-one worst things that people have ever done to each 
other (that we know of), fourteen were in centuries before the 20th. And all 
this pertains to absolute numbers. When you scale by population size, only 
one of the 20th century's atrocities even makes the top ten. The worst atrocity 
of all time was the An Lushan Revolt and Civil War, an eight-year rebellion 
during China's Tang Dynasty that, according to censuses, resulted in the loss 
of two-thirds of the empire's population, a sixth of the world's population at 
the time. 13 

These figures, of course, cannot all be taken at face value. Some tenden- 
tiously blame the entire death toll of a famine or epidemic on a particular war, 
rebellion, or tyrant. And some came from innumerate cultures that lacked 
modern techniques for counting and record-keeping. At the same time, nar- 
rative history confirms that earlier civilizations were certainly capable of kill- 
ing in vast numbers. Technological backwardness was no impediment; we 
know from Rwanda and Cambodia that massive numbers of people can be 
murdered with low-tech means like machetes and starvation. And in the dis- 
tant past, implements of killing were not always so low-tech, because military 
weaponry usually boasted the most advanced technology of the age. The mil- 
itary historian John Keegan notes that by the middle of the 2nd millennium 
BCE, the chariot allowed nomadic armies to rain death on the civilizations 






Second World War 



Mao Zedong 
caused famine) 



Mongol Conquests 



An Lushan Revolt 



Fall of the Ming 



Taiping Rebellion 



Annihilation of 
the American 



Josef Stalin 



Mideast Slave 




Atlantic Slave 




Timur Lenk 



British India 



First World War 



Russian Civil War 



Fall of Rome 



Congo Free State 



Thirty Years' War 



Russia's Time of 



Napoleonic Wars 



Chinese Civil War 



French Wars of 


Death toll 

Death toll: 



































































they invaded. "Circling at a distance of xoo or 200 yards from the herds of 
unarmored foot soldiers, a chariot crew — one to drive, one to shoot — might 
have transfixed six men a minute. Ten minutes' work by ten chariots would 
cause 500 casualties or more, a Battle of the Somme-like toll among the small 
armies of the period." 14 

High-throughput massacre was also perfected by mounted hordes from 
the steppes, such as the Scythians, Huns, Mongols, Turks, Magyars, Tatars, 
Mughals, and Manchus. For two thousand years these warriors deployed 
meticulously crafted composite bows (made from a glued laminate of wood, 
tendon, and horn) to run up immense body counts in their sackings and raids. 
These tribes were responsible for numbers 3, 5, 11, and 15 on the top-twenty- 
one list, and they take four of the top six slots in the population-adjusted rank- 
ing. The Mongol invasions of Islamic lands in the 13th century resulted in the 
massacre of 1.3 million people in the city of Merv alone, and another 800,000 
residents of Baghdad. As the historian of the Mongols J. J. Saunders remarks: 

There is something indescribably revolting in the cold savagery with which 
the Mongols carried out their massacres. The inhabitants of a doomed town 
were obliged to assemble in a plain outside the walls, and each Mongol 
trooper, armed with a battle-axe, was told to kill so many people, ten, twenty 
or fifty. As proof that orders had been properly obeyed, the killers were 
sometimes required to cut off an ear from each victim, collect the ears in 
sacks, and bring them to their officers to be counted. A few days after the 
massacre, troops were sent back into the ruined city to search for any poor 
wretches who might be hiding in holes or cellars; these were dragged out 
and slain. 15 

The Mongols' first leader, Genghis Khan, offered this reflection on the plea- 
sures of life: "The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and 
drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. 
To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to 
clasp their wives and daughters in his arms." 16 Modern genetics has shown 
this was no idle boast. Today 8 percent of the men who live within the former 
territory of the Mongol Empire share a Y chromosome that dates to around the 
time of Genghis, most likely because they descended from him and his sons 
and the vast number of women they clasped in their arms. 17 These accomplish- 
ments set the bar pretty high, but Timur Lenk (aka Tamerlane), a Turk who 
aimed to restore the Mongol Empire, did his best. He slaughtered tens of thou- 
sands of prisoners in each of his conquests of western Asian cities, then marked 
his accomplishment by building minarets out of their skulls. One Syrian eye- 
witness counted twenty-eight towers of fifteen hundred heads apiece. 18 

The worst-things list also gives the lie to the conventional wisdom that the 
20th century saw a quantum leap in organized violence from a peaceful 19th. 


For one thing, the 19th century has to be gerrymandered to show such a leap 
by chopping off the extremely destructive Napoleonic Wars from its begin- 
ning. For another, the lull in war in the remainder of the century applies only 
to Europe. Elsewhere we find many hemoclysms, including the Taiping Rebel- 
lion in China (a religiously inspired revolt that was perhaps the worst civil 
war in history), the African slave trade, imperial wars throughout Asia, Africa, 
and the South Pacific, and two major bloodlettings that didn't even make the 
list: the American Civil War (650,000 deaths) and the reign of Shaka, a Zulu 
Hitler who killed between 1 and 2 million people during his conquest of 
southern Africa between 1816 and 1827. Did I leave any continent out? Oh yes. 
South America. Among its many wars is the War of the Triple Alliance, which 
may have killed 400,000 people, including more than 60 percent of the popu- 
lation of Paraguay, making it proportionally the most destructive war in mod- 
ern times. 

A list of extreme cases, of course, cannot establish a trend. There were more 
major wars and massacres before the 20th century, but then there were more 
centuries before the 20th. Figure 5-3 extends White's list from the top twenty- 
one to the top hundred, scales them by the population of the world in that era, 
and shows how they were distributed in time between 500 BCE and 2000 CE. 

FIGURE 5-3. 100 worst wars and atrocities in human history 

Source: Data from White, in press, scaled by world population from McEvedy & Jones, 1978, at the 
midpoint of the listed range. Note that the estimates are not scaled by the duration of the war or 
atrocity. Circled dots represent selected events with death rates higher than the 20th-century world 
wars (from earlier to later): Xin Dynasty, Three Kingdoms, fall of Rome, An Lushan Revolt, Genghis 
Khan, Mideast slave trade, Timur Lenk, Atlantic slave trade, fall of the Ming Dynasty, and the con- 
quest of the Americas. 


Two patterns jump out of the splatter. The first is that the most serious wars 
and atrocities — those that killed more than a tenth of a percent of the popula- 
tion of the world — are pretty evenly distributed over 2,500 years of history. 
The other is that the cloud of data tapers rightward and downward into smaller 
and smaller conflicts for years that are closer to the present. How can we 
explain this funnel? It's unlikely that our distant ancestors refrained from 
small massacres and indulged only in large ones. White offers a more likely 

Maybe the only reason it appears that so many were killed in the past 200 
years is because we have more records from that period. I've been researching 
this for years, and it's been a long time since I found a new, previously txnpub- 
licized mass killing from the Twentieth Century; however, it seems like every 
time I open an old book, I will find another hundred thousand forgotten 
people killed somewhere in the distant past. Perhaps one chronicler made a 
note long ago of the number killed, but now that event has faded into the for- 
gotten past. Maybe a few modern historians have revisited the event, but they 
ignore the body count because it doesn't fit into their perception of the past. 
They don't believe it was possible to kill that many people without gas cham- 
bers and machine guns so they dismiss contrary evidence as unreliable.’ 9 

And of course for every massacre that was recorded by some chronicler and 
then overlooked or dismissed, there must have been many others that were 
never chronicled in the first place. 

A failure to adjust for this historical myopia can lead even historical schol- 
ars to misleading conclusions. William Eckhardt assembled a list of wars going 
back to 3000 BCE and plotted their death tolls against time. 20 His graph showed 
an acceleration in the rate of death from warfare over five millennia, picking 
up steam after the 16th century and blasting off in the 20th. 21 But this hockey 
stick is almost certainly an illusion. As James Payne has noted, any study that 
claims to show an increase in wars over time without correcting for historical 
myopia only shows that "the Associated Press is a more comprehensive source 
of information about battles around the world than were sixteenth-century 
monks." 22 Payne showed that this problem is genuine, not just hypothetical, 
by looking at one of Eckhardt's sources, Quincy Wright's monumental A Study 
of War, which has a list of wars from 1400 to 1940. Wright had been able to 
nail down the starting and ending month of 99 percent of the wars between 
1875 to 1940, but only 13 percent of the wars between 1480 and 1650, a telltale 
sign that records of the distant past are far less complete than those of the 
recent past. 23 

The historian Rein Taagepera quantified the myopia in a different way. He 
took a historical almanac and stepped through the pages with a ruler, measur- 
ing the number of column inches devoted to each century. 24 The range was so 


great that he had to plot the data on a logarithmic scale (on which an expo- 
nential fade looks like a straight line). His graph, reproduced in figure 5-4, 
shows that as you go back into the past, historical coverage hurtles exponen- 
tially downward for two and a half centuries, then falls with a gentler but still 
exponential decline for the three millennia before. 

If it were only a matter of missing a few small wars that escaped the notice 
of ancient chroniclers, one might be reassured that the body counts were not 
underestimated, because most of the deaths would be in big wars that no one 
could fail to notice. But the undercounting may introduce a bias, not just a 
fuzziness, in the estimates. Keegan writes of a "military horizon." 25 Beneath 
it are the raids, ambushes, skirmishes, turf battles, feuds, and depredations 
that historians dismiss as "primitive" warfare. Above it are the organized 
campaigns for conquest and occupation, including the set-piece battles that 
war buffs reenact in costume or display with toy soldiers. Remember Tuch- 
man's "private wars" of the 14th century, the ones that knights fought with 
furious gusto and a single strategy, namely killing as many of another knight's 
peasants as possible? Many of these massacres were never dubbed The War 
of Such-and-Such and immortalized in the history books. An undercounting 
of conflicts below the military horizon could, in theory, throw off the body 
count for the period as a whole. If more conflicts fell beneath the military 
horizon in the anarchic feudal societies, frontiers, and tribal lands of the early 
periods than in the clashes between Leviathans of the later ones, then the 
earlier periods would appear less violent to us than they really were. 

FIGURE 5-4. Historical myopia: Centimeters of text per century in a historical almanac 

Source: Data from Taagepera & Colby, 1979, p. 911. 


So when one adjusts for population size, the availability bias, and historical 
myopia, it is far from clear that the 20th century was the bloodiest in history. 
Sweeping that dogma out of the way is the first step in understanding 
the historical trajectory of war. The next is to zoom in for a closer look at the 
distribution of wars over time — which holds even more surprises. 



Lewis Richardson wrote that his quest to analyze peace with numbers sprang 
from two prejudices. As a Quaker, he believed that "the moral evil in war 
outweighs the moral good, although the latter is conspicuous." 26 As a scientist, 
he thought there was too much moralizing about war and not enough knowl- 
edge: "For indignation is so easy and satisfying a mood that it is apt to prevent 
one from attending to any facts that oppose it. If the reader should object that 
I have abandoned ethics for the false doctrine that 'tout comprendre c'est tout 
pardonner' [to understand all is to forgive all], I can reply that it is only a tem- 
porary suspense of ethical judgment, made because 'beaucoup condamner 
c'est pen comprendre' [to condemn much is to understand little]." 27 

After poring through encyclopedias and histories of different regions of 
the world, Richardson compiled data on 315 "deadly quarrels" that ended 
between 1820 and 1952. He faced some daunting problems. One is that most 
histories are sketchy when it comes to numbers. Another is that it isn't always 
clear how to count wars, since they tend to split, coalesce, and flicker on and 
off. Is World War II a single war or two wars, one in Europe and the other in 
the Pacific? If it's a single war, should we not say that it began in 1937, with 
Japan's full-scale invasion of China, or even in 1931, when it occupied Man- 
churia, rather than the conventional starting date of 1939? "The concept of a 
war as a discrete thing does not fit the facts," he observed. "Thinginess fails." 28 

Thinginess failures are familiar to physicists, and Richardson handled them 
with two techniques of mathematical estimation. Rather than seeking an elu- 
sive "precise definition" of a war, he gave the average priority over the indi- 
vidual case: as he considered each unclear conflict in turn, he systematically 
flipped back and forth between lumping them into one quarrel and splitting 
them into two, figuring that the errors would cancel out in the long run. (It's 
the same principle that underlies the practice of rounding a number ending 
in 5 to the closest even digit — half the time it will go up, half the time down.) 
And borrowing a practice from astronomy, Richardson assigned each quarrel 
a magnitude, namely the base-ten logarithm (roughly, the number of zeroes) 
of the war's death toll. On a logarithmic scale, a certain degree of imprecision 
in the measurements doesn't matter as much as it does on a conventional lin- 
ear scale. For example, uncertainty over whether a war killed 100,000 or 200,000 
people translates to an uncertainty in magnitude of only 5 versus 5.3. So 


Richardson sorted the magnitudes into logarithmic pigeonholes: 2.5 to 3.5 (that 
is, between 316 and 3,162 deaths), 3.5 to 4.5 (3,163 to 31,622), and so on. The other 
advantage of a logarithmic scale is that it allows us to visualize quarrels of a 
variety of sizes, from turf battles to world wars, on a single scale. 

Richardson also faced the problem of what kinds of quarrels to include, which 
deaths to tally, and how low to go. His criterion for adding a historical event to 
his database was "malice aforethought," so he included wars of all kinds and 
sizes, as well as mutinies, insurrections, lethal riots, and genocides; that's why he 
called his units of analysis "deadly quarrels" instead of haggling over what really 
deserves the word "war." His magnitude figures included soldiers killed on the 
battlefield, civilians killed deliberately or as collateral damage, and deaths of sol- 
diers from disease or exposure; he did not count civilian deaths from disease or 
exposure since these are more properly attributed to negligence than to malice. 

Richardson bemoaned an important gap in the historical record: the feuds, 
raids, and skirmishes that killed between 4 and 3x5 people apiece (magnitude 
0.5 to 2.5), which were too big for criminologists to record but too small for his- 
torians. He illustrated the problem of these quarrels beneath the military hori- 
zon by quoting from Reginald Coupland's history of the East African slave trade: 

"The main sources of supply were the organized slave-raids in the chosen 
areas, which shifted steadily inland as tract after tract became 'worked out.' 
The Arabs might conduct a raid themselves, but more usually they incited 
a chief to attack another tribe, lending him their own armed slaves and guns 
to ensure his victory. The result, of course, was an increase in intertribal 
warfare till 'the whole country was in a flame.' " 

How should this abominable custom be classified? Was it all one huge 
war between Arabs and Negroes which began two thousand years before 
it ended in 1880? If so it may have caused more deaths than any other war 
in history. From Coupland's description, however, it would seem more rea- 
sonable to regard slave-raiding as a numerous collection of small fatal quar- 
rels each between an Arab caravan and a negro tribe or village, and of 
magnitudes such as 1, 2, or 3. Detailed statistics are not available. 29 

Nor were they available for 80 revolutions in Latin America, 556 peasant upris- 
ings in Russia, and 477 conflicts in China, which Richardson knew about but 
was forced to exclude from his tallies. 30 

Richardson did, however, anchor the scale at magnitude o by including 
statistics on homicides, which are quarrels with a death toll of 1 (since io°= 1). 
He anticipates an objection by Shakespeare's Portia: "You ought not to mix up 
murder with war; for murder is an abominable selfish crime, but war is a heroic 
and patriotic adventure." He replies: "Yet they are both fatal quarrels. Does it 
never strike you as puzzling that it is wicked to kill one person, but glorious 
to kill ten thousand?" 31 


Richardson then analyzed the 315 quarrels (without the benefit of a com- 
puter) to get a bird's-eye view of human violence and test a variety of hypoth- 
eses suggested by historians and his own prejudices. 32 Most of the hypotheses 
did not survive their confrontation with the data. A common language didn't 
make two factions less likely to go to war (just think of most civil wars, or the 
19th-century wars between South American countries); so much for the "hope" 
that gave Esperanto its name. Economic indicators predicted little; rich coun- 
tries, for example, didn't systematically pick on poor countries or vice versa. 
Wars were not, in general, precipitated by arms races. 

But a few generalizations did survive. A long-standing government inhib- 
its fighting: peoples on one side of a national border are less likely to have a 
civil war than peoples on opposite sides are to have an interstate war. Coun- 
tries are more likely to fight their neighbors, but great powers are more likely 
to fight everyone, largely because their far-flung empires make almost every- 
one their neighbors. Certain cultures, especially those with a militant ideology, 
are particularly prone to go to war. 

But Richardson's most enduring discoveries are about the statistical pat- 
terning of wars. Three of his generalizations are robust, profound, and under- 
appreciated. To understand them, we must first take a small detour into a 
paradox of probability. 

Suppose you live in a place that has a constant chance of being struck by light- 
ning at any time throughout the year. Suppose that the strikes are random: 
every day the chance of a strike is the same, and the rate works out to one 
strike a month. Your house is hit by lightning today, Monday. What is the most 
likely day for the next bolt to strike your house? 

The answer is "tomorrow," Tuesday. That probability, to be sure, is not very 
high; let's approximate it at 0.03 (about once a month). Now think about the 
chance that the next strike will be the day after tomorrow, Wednesday. For 
that to happen, two things have to take place. First lightning has to strike on 
Wednesday, a probability of 0.03. Second, lightning can't have struck on Tuesday, 
or else Tuesday would have been the day of the next strike, not Wednesday. 
To calculate that probability, you have to multiply the chance that lightning 
will not strike on Tuesday (0.97, or 1 minus 0.03) by the chance that lightning 
will strike on Wednesday (0.03), which is 0.0291, a bit lower than Tuesday's 
chances. What about Thursday? For that to be the day, lightning can't have 
struck on Tuesday (0.97) or on Wednesday either (0.97 again) but it must strike 
on Thursday, so the chances are 0.97 x 0.97 x 0.03, which is 0.0282. What about 
Friday? It's 0.97 x 0.97 x 0.97 x 0.03, or 0.274. With each day, the odds go down 
(0.0300 . . . 0.0291 . . . 0.0282 . . . 0.0274), because for a given day to be the next 
day that lightning strikes, all the previous days have to have been strike-free, 
and the more of these days there are, the lower the chances are that the 
streak will continue. To be exact, the probability goes down exponentially. 


accelerating at an accelerating rate. The chance that the next strike will be 
thirty days from today is 0.97 29 x 0.03, barely more than 1 percent. 

Almost no one gets this right. I gave the question to a hundred Internet 
users, with the word next italicized so they couldn't miss it. Sixty-seven picked 
the option "every day has the same chance." But that answer, though intui- 
tively compelling, is wrong. If every day were equally likely to be the next one, 
then a day a thousand years from now would be just as likely as a day a month 
from now. That would mean that the house would be just as likely to go a 
thousand years without a strike as to suffer one next month. Of the remaining 
respondents, nineteen thought that the most likely day was a month from 
today. Only five of the hundred correctly guessed "tomorrow." 

Lightning strikes are an example of what statisticians call a Poisson process 
(pronounced pwah-sonh), named after the 19th-century mathematician and 
physicist Simeon-Denis Poisson. In a Poisson process, events occur continu- 
ously, randomly, and independently of one another. Every instant the lord of 
the sky, Jupiter, rolls the dice, and if they land snake eyes he hurls a thunder- 
bolt. The next instant he rolls them again, with no memory of what happened 
the moment before. For reasons we have just seen, in a Poisson process the 
intervals between events are distributed exponentially: there are lots of short 
intervals and fewer and fewer of them as they get longer and longer. That 
implies that events that occur at random will seem to come in clusters, because 
it would take a nonrandom process to space them out. 

The human mind has great difficulty appreciating this law of probability. 
When I was a graduate student, I worked in an auditory perception lab. In one 
experiment listeners had to press a key as quickly as possible every time they 
heard a beep. The beeps were timed at random, that is, according to a Poisson 
process. The listeners, graduate students themselves, knew this, but as soon 
as the experiment began they would run out of the booth and say, "Your ran- 
dom event generator is broken. The beeps are coming in bursts. They sound 
like this: "beepbeepbeepbeepbeep . . . beep . . . beepbeep . . . beepitybeepity- 
beepbeepbeep." They didn't appreciate that that's what randomness sounds 

This cognitive illusion was first noted in 1968 by the mathematician Wil- 
liam Feller in his classic textbook on probability: "To the untrained eye, ran- 
domness appears as regularity or tendency to cluster." 33 Here are a few 
examples of the cluster illusion. 

The London Blitz. Feller recounts that during the Blitz in World War II, Lon- 
doners noticed that a few sections of the city were hit by German V-2 rockets 
many times, while others were not hit at all. They were convinced that the 
rockets were targeting particular kinds of neighborhoods. But when statisti- 
cians divided a map of London into small squares and counted the bomb 
strikes, they found that the strikes followed the distribution of a Poisson 
process — the bombs, in other words, were falling at random. The episode is 


depicted in Thomas Pynchon's 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow, in which statisti- 
cian Roger Mexico has correctly predicted the distribution of bomb strikes, 
though not their exact locations. Mexico has to deny that he is a psychic and 
fend off desperate demands for advice on where to hide. 

The gambler's fallacy. Many high rollers lose their fortunes because of the 
gambler's fallacy: the belief that after a run of similar outcomes in a game of 
chance (red numbers in a roulette wheel, sevens in a game of dice), the next 
spin or toss is bound to go the other way. Tversky and Kahneman showed that 
people think that genuine sequences of coin flips (like tthhthtttt) are fixed, 
because they have more long runs of heads or of tails than their intuitions 
allow, and they think that sequences that were jiggered to avoid long runs 
(like hthtththht) are fair. 34 

The birthday paradox. Most people are surprised to learn that if there are at 
least 23 people in a room, the chances that two of them will share a birthday 
are better than even. With 57 people, the probability rises to 99 percent. In this 
case the illusory clusters are in the calendar. There are only so many birthdays 
to go around (366), so a few of the birthdays scattered throughout the year are 
bound to fall onto the same day, unless there was some mysterious force try- 
ing to separate them. 

Constellations. My favorite example was discovered by the biologist Stephen 
Jay Gould when he toured the famous glowworm caves in Waitomo, New Zea- 
land. 35 The worms' pinpricks of light on the dark ceiling made the grotto look 
like a planetarium, but with one difference: there were no constellations. Gould 
deduced the reason. Glowworms are gluttonous and will eat any- 
thing that comes within snatching distance, so each worm gives the others a 
wide berth when it stakes out a patch of ceiling. As a result, they are more evenly 
spaced than stars, which from our vantage point are randomly spattered across 
the sky. Yet it is the stars that seem to fall into shapes, including the ram, bull, 
twins, and so on, that for millennia have served as portents to pattern-hungry 
brains. Gould's colleague, the physicist Ed Purcell, confirmed Gould's intuition 
by programming a computer to generate two arrays of random dots. The virtual 
stars were plonked on the page with no constraints. The virtual worms were 
given a random tiny patch around them in which no other worm could intrude. 
They are shown in figure 5-5; you can probably guess which is which. The one 
on the left, with the clumps, strands, voids, and filaments (and perhaps, depend- 
ing on your obsessions, animals, nudes, or Virgin Marys) is the array that was 
plotted at random, like stars. The one on the right, which seems to be haphaz- 
ard, is the array whose positions were nudged apart, like glowworms. 

Richardson's data. My last example comes from another physicist, our friend 
Lewis Fry Richardson. These are real data from a naturally occurring phe- 
nomenon. The segments in figure 5-6 represent events of various durations, 
and they are arranged from left to right in time and from bottom to top in 


FIGURE 5-5. Random and nonrandom patterns 

Sources: Displays generated by Ed Purcell; reproduced from Gould, 1991, pp. 266-67. 

I I I 1 I I I 

FIGURE 5-6. Richardson’s data 

Source: Graph from Hayes, 2002, based on data in Richardson, i960. 

magnitude. Richardson showed that the events are governed by a Poisson 
process: they stop and start at random. Your eye may discern some patterns — 
for example, a scarcity of segments at the top left, and the two floaters at the 
top right. But by now you have learned to distrust these apparitions. And 
indeed Richardson showed that there was no statistically significant trend in 
the distribution of magnitudes from the beginning of the sequence to the end. 
Cover up the two outliers with your thumb, and the impression of random- 
ness is total. 


You can probably guess what the data represent. Each segment is a war. 
The horizontal axis marks off quarter-centuries from 1800 to 1950. The vertical 
axis indicates the magnitude of the war, measured as the base-ten logarithm 
of the number of deaths, from two at the bottom (a hundred deaths) to eight 
at the top (a hundred million deaths). And the two segments in the upper right 
correspond to World War I and World War II. 

Richardson's major discovery about the timing of wars is that they begin 
at random. Every instant Mars, the god of war, rolls his iron dice, and if they 
turn up snake eyes he sends a pair of nations to war. The next instant he rolls 
them again, with no memory of what happened the moment before. That 
would make the distribution of intervals between war onsets exponential, 
with lots of short intervals and fewer long ones. 

The Poisson nature of war undermines historical narratives that see con- 
stellations in illusory clusters. It also confounds theories that see grand pat- 
terns, cycles, and dialectics in human history. A horrible conflict doesn't make 
the world weary of war and give it a respite of peaceable exhaustion. Nor does 
a pair of belligerents cough on the planet and infect it with a contagious war 
disease. And a world at peace doesn't build up a mounting desire for war, like 
an unignorable itch, that eventually must be discharged in a sudden violent 
spasm. No, Mars just keeps rolling the dice. Some half-dozen other war data- 
sets have been assembled during and after Richardson's time; all support the 
same conclusion. 36 

Richardson found that not only are the onsets of wars randomly timed; so 
are their offsets. At every instant Pax, the goddess of peace, rolls her dice, and 
if they come up boxcars, the warring parties lay down their arms. Richardson 
found that once a small war (magnitude 3) begins, then every year there is a 
slightly less than even chance (0.43) that it will terminate. That means that 
most wars last a bit more than two years, right? If you're nodding, you haven't 
been paying attention! With a constant probability of ending every year, a war 
is most likely to end after its first year, slightly less likely to end within two 
years, a bit less likely to stretch on to three, and so on. The same is true for 
larger wars (magnitude 4 to 7), which have a 0.235 chance of coming to an end 
before another year is up. War durations are distributed exponentially, with 
the shortest wars being the most common. 37 This tells us that warring nations 
don't have to "get the aggression out of their system" before they come to their 
senses, that wars don't have a "momentum" that must be allowed to "play 
itself out." As soon as a war begins, some combination of antiwar forces — 
pacifism, fear, rout — puts pressure on it to end. 38 

If wars start and stop at random, is it pointless even to look for historical 
trends in war? It isn't. The "randomness" in a Poisson process pertains to the 
relationships among successive events, namely that there is none: the event 
generator, like the dice, has no memory. But nothing says that the probability 
has to be constant over long stretches of time. Mars could switch from causing 


a war whenever the dice land in snake eyes to, say, causing a war whenever 
they add up to 3, or 6, or 7. Any of these shifts would change the probability 
of war over time without changing its randomness— the fact that the outbreak 
of one war doesn't make another war either more or less likely. A Poisson 
process with a drifting probability is called nonstationary. The possibility that 
war might decline over some historical period, then, is alive. It would reside 
in a nonstationary Poisson process with a declining rate parameter. 

By the same token, it's mathematically possible for war both to be a Poisson 
process and to display cycles. In theory. Mars could oscillate, causing a war on 
3 percent of his throws, then shifting to causing a war on 6 percent, and then 
going back again. In practice, it isn't easy to distinguish cycles in a nonstation- 
ary Poisson process from illusory clusters in a stationary one. A few clusters 
could fool the eye into thinking that the whole system waxes and wanes (as 
in the so-called business cycle, which is really a sequence of unpredictable 
lurches in economic activity rather than a genuine cycle with a constant 
period). There are good statistical methods that can test for periodicities in 
time series data, but they work best when the span of time is much longer than 
the period of the cycles one is looking for, since that provides room for many 
of the putative cycles to fit. To be confident in the results, it also helps to have 
a second dataset in which to replicate the analysis, so that one isn't fooled by 
the possibility of "overfitting" cycles to what are really random clusters in a 
particular dataset. Richardson examined a number of possible cycles for wars 
of magnitudes 3, 4, and 5 (the bigger wars were too sparse to allow a test), and 
found none. Other analysts have looked at longer datasets, and the literature 
contains sightings of cycles at 5, 15, 20, 24, 30, 30, 60, 120, and 200 years. With 
so many tenuous candidates, it is safer to conclude that war follows no mean- 
ingful cycle at all, and that is the conclusion endorsed by most quantitative 
historians of war. 39 The sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, another pioneer of the 
statistical study of war, concluded, "History seems to be neither as monoto- 
nous and uninventive as the partisans of the strict periodicities and 'iron laws' 
and 'universal uniformities' think; nor so dull and mechanical as an engine, 
making the same number of revolutions in a unit of time." 40 

Could the 20th-century Hemoclysm, then, have been some kind of fluke? Even 
to think that way seems like monstrous disrespect to the victims. But the sta- 
tistics of deadly quarrels don't force such an extreme conclusion. Randomness 
over long stretches of time can coexist with changing probabilities, and cer- 
tainly some of the probabilities in the 1930s must have been different from those 
of other decades. The Nazi ideology that justified an invasion of Poland in order 
to acquire living space for the "racially superior" Aryans was a part of the same 
ideology that justified the annihilation of the "racially inferior" Jews. Militant 
nationalism was a common thread that ran through Germany, Italy, and Japan. 
There was also a common denominator of counter-Enlightenment utopianism 

208 the better angels of our nature 

behind the ideologies of Nazism and communism. And even if wars are ran- 
domly distributed over the long run, there can be an occasional exception. The 
occurrence of World War I, for example, presumably incremented the probabil- 
ity that a war like World War II in Europe would break out. 

But statistical thinking, particularly an awareness of the cluster illusion, 
suggests that we are apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence of this history — 
to think that what did happen must have happened because of historical forces 
like cycles, crescendos, and collision courses. Even with all the probabilities 
in place, highly contingent events, which need not reoccur if we somehow 
could rewind the tape of history and play it again, may have been necessary 
to set off the wars with death tolls in the 6s and 7s on the magnitude scale. 

Writing in 1999, White repeated a Frequently Asked Question of that year: 
"Who's the most important person of the Twentieth Century?" His choice: 
Gavrilo Princip. Who the heck was Gavrilo Princip? He was the nineteen-year- 
old Serb nationalist who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria- 
Hungary during a state visit to Bosnia, after a string of errors and accidents 
delivered the archduke to within shooting distance. White explains his choice: 

Here's a man who single-handedly sets off a chain reaction which ultimately 
leads to the deaths of 80 million people. 

Top that, Albert Einstein! 

With just a couple of bullets, this terrorist starts the First World War, 
which destroys four monarchies, leading to a power vacuum filled by the 
Communists in Russia and the Nazis in Germany who then fight it out in a 
Second World War. . . . 

Some people would minimize Princip's importance by saying that a Great 
Power War was inevitable sooner or later given the tensions of the times, 
but I say that it was no more inevitable than, say, a war between NATO and 
the Warsaw Pact. Left unsparked, the Great War could have been avoided, 
and without it, there would have been no Lenin, no Hitler, no Eisenhower. 41 

Other historians who indulge in counterfactual scenarios, such as Richard 
Ned Lebow, have made similar arguments. 42 As for World War II, the historian 
F. H. Hinsley wrote, "Historians are, rightly, nearly unanimous that . . . the 
causes of the Second World War were the personality and the aims of Adolf 
Hitler." Keegan agrees: "Only one European really wanted war — Adolf 
Hitler." 43 The political scientist John Mueller concludes: 

These statements suggest that there was no momentum toward another 
world war in Europe, that historical conditions in no important way required 
that contest, and that the major nations of Europe were not on a collision 
course that was likely to lead to war. That is, had Adolf Hitler gone into art 
rather than politics, had he been gassed a bit more thoroughly by the British 


in the trenches in 1918, had he, rather than the man marching next to him, 
been gunned down in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, had he failed to survive 
the automobile crash he experienced in 1930, had he been denied the leader- 
ship position in Germany, or had he been removed from office at almost any 
time before September 1939 (and possibly even before May 1940), Europe's 
greatest war would most probably never have taken place. 44 

So, too, the Nazi genocide. As we shall see in the next chapter, most histo- 
rians of genocide agree with the title of a 1984 essay by the sociologist Milton 
Himmelfarb: "No Hitler, no Holocaust." 45 

Probability is a matter of perspective. Viewed at sufficiently close range, indi- 
vidual events have determinate causes. Even a coin flip can be predicted from 
the starting conditions and the laws of physics, and a skilled magician can 
exploit those laws to throw heads every time. 46 Yet when we zoom out to take a 
wide-angle view of a large number of these events, we are seeing the sum of a 
vast number of causes that sometimes cancel each other out and sometimes 
align in the same direction. The physicist and philosopher Henri Poincare 
explained that we see the operation of chance in a deterministic world either 
when a large number of puny causes add up to a formidable effect, or when a 
small cause that escapes our notice determines a large effect that we cannot 
miss. 47 In the case of organized violence, someone may want to start a war; he 
waits for the opportune moment, which may or may not come; his enemy 
decides to engage or retreat; bullets fly; bombs burst; people die. Every event 
may be determined by the laws of neuroscience and physics and physiology. 
But in the aggregate, the many causes that go into this matrix can sometimes 
be shuffled into extreme combinations. Together with whatever ideological, 
political, and social currents put the world at risk in the first half of the 20th 
century, those decades were also hit with a run of extremely bad luck. 

Now to the money question: has the probability that a war will break out 
increased, decreased, or stayed the same over time? Richardson's dataset is 
biased to show an increase. It begins just after the Napoleonic Wars, slicing 
off one of the most destructive wars in history at one end, and finishes just 
after World War II, snagging history's most destructive war at the other. Rich- 
ardson did not live to see the Long Peace that dominated the subsequent 
decades, but he was an astute enough mathematician to know that it was sta- 
tistically possible, and he devised ingenious ways of testing for trends in a 
time series without being misled by extreme events at either end. The simplest 
was to separate the wars of different magnitudes and test for trends separately 
in each range. In none of the five ranges (3 to 7) did he find a significant trend. 
If anything, he found a slight decline. "There is a suggestion," he wrote, "but 
not a conclusive proof, that mankind has become less warlike since A.D. 1820. 
The best available observations show a slight decrease in the number of wars 


with time. . . . But the distinction is not great enough to show plainly among 
chance variations." 48 Written at a time when the ashes of Europe and Asia were 
still warm, this is a testament to a great scientist's willingness to lets facts and 
reason override casual impressions and conventional wisdom. 

As we shall see, analyses of the frequency of war over time from other datasets 
point to the same conclusion 49 But the frequency of war is not the whole story; 
magnitude matters as well. One could be forgiven for pointing out that Richard- 
son's conjecture that mankind was getting less warlike depended on segregating 
the world wars into a micro-class of two, in which statistics are futile. His other 
analyses counted all wars alike, with World War II no different from, say, a 1952 
revolution in Bolivia with a thousand deaths. Richardson's son pointed out to him 
that if he divided his data into large and small wars, they seemed to show oppos- 
ing trends: small wars were becoming considerably less frequent, but larger wars, 
while fewer in number, were becoming somewhat more frequent. A different way 
of putting it is that between 1820 and 1953 wars became less frequent but more 
lethal. Richardson tested the pattern of contrast and found that it was statistically 
significant. 50 The next section will show that this too was an astute conclusion: 
other datasets confirm that until 1943, the story of war in Europe and among major 
nations in general was one of fewer but more damaging wars. 

So does that mean that mankind got more warlike or less? There is no single 
answer, because "warlike" can refer to two different things. It can refer to how 
likely nations are to go to war, or it can refer to how many people are killed 
when they do. Imagine two rural counties with the same size population. One 
of them has a hundred teenage arsonists who delight in setting forest fires. But 
the forests are in isolated patches, so each fire dies out before doing much dam- 
age. The other county has just two arsonists, but its forests are connected, so 
that a small blaze is likely to spread, as they say, like wildfire. Which county 
has the worse forest fire problem? One could argue it either way. As far as the 
amount of reckless depravity is concerned, the first county is worse; as far as 
the risk of serious damage is concerned, the second is. Nor is it obvious which 
county will have the greater amount of overall damage, the one with a lot of 
little fires, or the one with a few big ones. To make sense of these questions, we 
have to turn from the statistics of time to the statistics of magnitude. 



Richardson made a second major discovery about the statistics of deadly quar- 
rels. It emerged when he counted the number of quarrels of each magnitude — 
how many with death tolls in the thousands, how many in the tens of 
thousands, how many in the hundreds of thousands, and so on. It isn't a com- 
plete surprise that there were lots of little wars and only a few big ones. What 
was a surprise was how neat the relationship turned out to be. When 


Richardson plotted the log of the number of quarrels of each magnitude 
against the log of the number of deaths per quarrel (that is, the magnitude 
itself), he ended up with a graph like figure 5-7. 

Scientists are accustomed to seeing data fall into perfect straight lines when 
they come from hard sciences like physics, such as the volume of a gas plotted 
against its temperature. But not in their wildest dreams do they expect the 
messy data from history to be so well behaved. The data we are looking at 
come from a ragbag of deadly quarrels ranging from the greatest cataclysm 
in the history of humanity to a coup d'etat in a banana republic, and from the 
dawn of the Industrial Revolution to the dawn of the computer age. The jaw 
drops when seeing this melange of data fall onto a perfect diagonal. 

Piles of data in which the log of the frequency of a certain kind of entity is 
proportional to the log of the size of that entity, so that a plot on log-log paper 
looks like a straight line, are called power-law distributions. 51 The name comes 
from the fact that when you put away the logarithms and go back to the orig- 
inal numbers, the probability of an entity showing up in the data is propor- 
tional to the size of that entity raised to some power (which translates visually 
to the slope of the line in the log-log plot), plus a constant. In this case the power 
is -1.5, which means that with every tenfold jump in the death toll of a war, 
you can expect to find about a third as many of them. Richardson plotted 
murders (quarrels of magnitude o) on the same graph as wars, noting that 
qualitatively they follow the overall pattern: they are much, much less damag- 
ing than the smallest wars and much, much more frequent. But as you can see 

FIGURE 5-7. Number of deadly quarrels of different magnitudes, 1820-1952 

Source: Graph adapted from Weiss, 1963, p. 103, based on data from Richardson, 1960, p. 149. The 
range 1820-1952 refers to the year a war ended. 


from their lonely perch atop the vertical axis, high above the point where an 
extrapolation of the line for the wars would hit it, he was pushing his luck 
when he said that all deadly quarrels fell along a single continuum. Richard- 
son gamely connected the murder point to the war line with a swoopy curve 
so that he could interpolate the numbers of quarrels with death tolls in the 
single digits, the tens, and the hundreds, which are missing from the histori- 
cal record. (These are the skirmishes beneath the military horizon that fall in 
the crack between criminology and history.) But for now let's ignore the mur- 
ders and skirmishes and concentrate on the wars. 

Could Richardson just have been lucky with his sample? Fifty years later 
the political scientist Lars-Erik Cederman plotted a newer set of numbers in 
a major dataset of battle deaths from the Correlates of War Project, comprising 
ninety-seven interstate wars between 1820 and 1997 (figure 5-8). 52 They too fall 
along a straight line in log-log coordinates. (Cederman plotted the data in a 
slightly different way, but that doesn't matter for our purposes.) 53 

Scientists are intrigued by power-law distributions for two reasons. 54 One 
is that the distribution keeps turning up in measurements of things that you 
would think have nothing in common. One of the first power-law distribu- 
tions was discovered in the 1930s by the linguist G. K. Zipf when he plotted 
the frequencies of words in the English language. 55 If you count up the instances 
of each of the words in a large corpus of text, you'll find around a dozen that 
occur extremely frequently, that is, in more than 1 percent of all word tokens, 
including the (7 percent), be (4 percent), 0/(4 percent), and (3 percent), and a 







CO </> 
r- 4= 


World War I 


World War II 



10,000 100,000 1 mil 

Number of deaths in each war 

10 mil 

100 mil 

FIGURE 5-8. Probabilities of wars of different magnitudes, 1820-1997 

Source: Graph from Cederman, 2003, p. 136. 


(2 percent). 56 Around three thousand occur in the medium-frequency range 
centered on 1 in io,ooo, such as confidence, junior, and afraid. Tens of thousands 
occur once every million words, including embitter, memorialize, and titular. 
And hundreds of thousands have frequencies far less than one in a million, 
like kankedort, apotropaic, and deliquesce. 

Another example of a power-law distribution was discovered in 1906 by 
the economist Vilfredo Pareto when he looked at the distribution of incomes 
in Italy: a handful of people were filthy rich, while a much larger number were 
dirt-poor. Since these discoveries, power-law distributions have also turned 
up, among other places, in the populations of cities, the commonness of names, 
the popularity of Web sites, the number of citations of scientific papers, the 
sales figures of books and musical recordings, the number of species in bio- 
logical taxa, and the sizes of moon craters. 57 

The second remarkable thing about power-law distributions is that they 
look the same over a vast range of values. To understand why this is so strik- 
ing, let's compare power-law distributions to a more familiar distribution 
called the normal, Gaussian, or bell curve. With measurements like the heights 
of men or the speeds of cars on a freeway, most of the numbers pile up around 
an average, and they tail off in both directions, falling into a curve that looks 
like a bell 58 Figure 5-9 shows one for the heights of American males. There 
are lots of men around 510" tall, fewer who are 56" or 6’2", not that many who 
are 50" or 6'8", and no one who is shorter than T11" or taller than 8'n" (the two 
extremes in The Guinness Book of World Records). The ratio of the tallest man in 

FIGURE 5-9. Heights of males (a normal or bell-curve distribution) 

Source: Graph from Newman, 2005, p. 324. 


the world to the shortest man in the world is 4.8, and you can bet that you will 
never meet a man who is 20 feet tall. 

But with other kinds of entities, the measurements don't heap up around a 
typical value, don't fall off symmetrically in both directions, and don't fit 
within a cozy range. The sizes of towns and cities is a good example. It's hard 
to answer the question "How big is a typical American municipality?" New 
York has 8 million people; the smallest municipality that counts as a "town," 
according to Guinness, is Duffield, Virginia, with only 52. The ratio of the larg- 
est municipality to the smallest is 150,000, which is very different from the 
less-than-fivefold variation in the heights of men. 

Also, the distribution of sizes of municipalities isn't curved like a bell. As 
the black line in figure 5-10 shows, it is L-shaped, with a tall spine on the left 
and a long tail on the right. In this graph, city populations are laid out along a 
conventional linear scale on the black horizontal axis: cities of 100,000, cities of 
200,000, and so on. So are the proportions of cities of each population size on 
the black vertical axis: three-thousandths (3/1000, or 0.003) °f a percent of Amer- 
ican municipalities have a population of exactly 20,000, two thousandths of a 
percent have a population of 30,000, one thousandth of a percent have a popu- 
lation of 40,000, and so on, with smaller and smaller proportions having larger 

Population of cities (log scale) 

o 100,000 200,000 300,000 400,000 500,000 

Population of cities 

FIGURE 5-10. Populations of cities (a power-law distribution), plotted on linear and log scales 

Source: Graph adapted from Newman, 2005, p. 324. 


and larger populations. 59 Now the gray axes at the top and the right of the graph 
stretch out these same numbers on a logarithmic scale, in which orders of mag- 
nitude (the number of zeroes) are evenly spaced, rather than the values them- 
selves. The tick marks for population sizes are at ten thousand, a hundred 
thousand, a million, and so on. Likewise the proportions of cities at each pop- 
ulation size are arranged along equal order-of-magnitude tick marks: one one- 
hundredth (1/100, or 0.01) of a percent, one one-thousandth (1/1,000, or 0.001) 
of a percent, one ten-thousandth, and so on. When the axes are stretched out 
like this, something interesting happens to the distribution: the L straightens 
out into a nice line. And that is the signature of a power-law distribution. 

Which brings us back to wars. Since wars fall into a power-law distribution, 
some of the mathematical properties of these distributions may help us under- 
stand the nature of wars and the mechanisms that give rise to them. For start- 
ers, power-law distributions with the exponent we see for wars do not even 
have a finite mean. There is no such thing as a "typical war." We should not 
expect, even on average, that a war will proceed until the casualties pile up to 
an expected level and then will naturally wind itself down. 

Also, power-law distributions are scale-free. As you slide up or down the 
line in the log-log graph, it always looks the same, namely, like a line. The 
mathematical implication is that as you magnify or shrink the units you are 
looking at, the distribution looks the same. Suppose that computer files of 
2 kilobytes are a quarter as common as files of 1 kilobyte. Then if we stand 
back and look at files in higher ranges, we find the same thing: files of 2 mega- 
bytes are a quarter as common as files of 1 megabyte, and files of 2 terabytes 
are a quarter as common as files of 1 terabyte. In the case of wars, you can 
think of it this way. What are the odds of going from a small war, say, with 
1,000 deaths, to a medium-size war, with 10,000 deaths? It's the same as the 
odds of going from a medium-size war of 10,000 deaths to a large war of 100,000 
deaths, or from a large war of 100,000 deaths to a historically large war of 
1 million deaths, or from a historic war to a world war. 

Finally, power-law distributions have "thick tails," meaning that they have 
a nonnegligible number of extreme values. You will never meet a 20-foot man, 
or see a car driving down the freeway at 500 miles per hour. But you could 
conceivably come across a city of 14 million, or a book that was on the bestseller 
list for 10 years, or a moon crater big enough to see from the earth with the 
naked eye — or a war that killed 55 million people. 

The thick tail of a power-law distribution, which declines gradually rather 
than precipitously as you rocket up the magnitude scale, means that extreme 
values are extremely unlikely but not astronomically unlikely. It's an important 
difference. The chances of meeting a 20-foot-tall man are astronomically 
unlikely; you can bet your life it will never happen. But the chances that a city 
will grow to 20 million, or that a book will stay on the bestseller list for 20 years, 
is merely extremely unlikely — it probably won't happen, but you could well 


imagine it happening. I hardly need to point out the implications for war. It 
is extremely unlikely that the world will see a war that will kill 100 million 
people, and less likely still that it will have one that will kill a billion. But in an 
age of nuclear weapons, our terrified imaginations and the mathematics of 
power-law distributions agree: it is not astronomically unlikely. 

So far I've been discussing the causes of war as Platonic abstractions, as if 
armies were sent into war by equations. What we really need to understand 
is why wars distribute themselves as power laws; that is, what combination of 
psychology and politics and technology could generate this pattern. At pres- 
ent we can't be sure of the answer. Too many kinds of mechanisms can give 
rise to power-law distributions, and the data on wars are not precise enough 
to tell us which is at work. 

Still, the scale-free nature of the distribution of deadly quarrels gives us an 
insight about the drivers of war. 60 Intuitively, it suggests that size doesn't matter. 
The same psychological or game-theoretic dynamics that govern whether 
quarreling coalitions will threaten, back down, bluff, engage, escalate, fight 
on, or surrender apply whether the coalitions are street gangs, militias, or 
armies of great powers. Presumably this is because humans are social animals 
who aggregate into coalitions, which amalgamate into larger coalitions, and 
so on. Yet at any scale these coalitions may be sent into battle by a single clique 
or individual, be it a gang leader, capo, warlord, king, or emperor. 

How can the intuition that size doesn't matter be implemented in models 
of armed conflict that actually generate power-law distributions? 61 The sim- 
plest is to assume that the coalitions themselves are power-law-distributed in 
size, that they fight each other in proportion to their numbers, and that they 
suffer losses in proportion to their sizes. We know that some human aggrega- 
tions, namely municipalities, are power-law-distributed, and we know the 
reason. One of the commonest generators of a power-law distribution is 
preferential attachment: the bigger something is, the more new members it 
attracts. Preferential attachment is also known as accumulated advantage, 
the-rich-get-richer, and the Matthew Effect, after the passage in Matthew '25:29 
that Billie Holiday summarized as “Them that's got shall get, them that's not 
shall lose." Web sites that are popular attract more visitors, making them even 
more popular; bestselling books are put on bestseller lists, which lure more 
people into buying them; and cities with lots of people offer more professional 
and cultural opportunities so more people flock to them. (How are you going 
to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paree?) 

Richardson considered this simple explanation but found that the numbers 
didn't add up. 62 If deadly quarrels reflected city sizes, then for every tenfold 
reduction in the size of a quarrel, there should be ten times as many of them, 
but in fact there are fewer than four times as many. Also, in recent centuries 
wars have been fought by states, not cities, and states follow a log-normal 
distribution (a warped bell curve) rather than a power law. 


Another kind of mechanism has been suggested by the science of complex 
systems, which looks for laws that govern structures that are organized into 
similar patterns despite being made of different stuff. Many complexity theo- 
rists are intrigued by systems that display a pattern called self-organized 
criticality. You can think of "criticality" as the straw that broke the camel's 
back: a small input causes a sudden large output. "Self-organized" criticality 
would be a camel whose back healed right back to the exact strength at which 
straws of various sizes could break it again. A good example is a trickle of 
sand falling onto a sandpile, which periodically causes landslides of different 
sizes; the landslides are distributed according to a power law. An avalanche 
of sand stops at a point where the slope is just shallow enough to be stable, but 
the new sand trickling onto it steepens the slope and sets off a new avalanche. 
Earthquakes and forest fires are other examples. A fire burns a forest, which 
allows trees to grow back at random, forming clusters that can grow into each 
other and fuel another fire. Several political scientists have developed com- 
puter simulations that model wars on an analogy to forest fires . 63 in these 
models, countries conquer their neighbors and create larger countries in the 
same way that patches of trees grow into each other and create larger patches. 
Just as a cigarette tossed in a forest can set off either a brushfire or a conflagra- 
tion, a destabilizing event in the simulation of states can set off either a skir- 
mish or a world war. 

In these simulations, the destructiveness of a war depends mainly on the 
territorial size of the combatants and their alliances. But in the real world, 
variations in destructiveness also depend on the resolve of the two parties to 
keep a war going, with each hoping that the other will collapse first. Some of 
the bloodiest conflicts in modern history, such as the American Civil War, 
World War I, the Vietnam War, and the Iran-Iraq War, were wars of attrition, 
where both sides kept shoveling men and materiel into the maw of the war 
machine hoping that the other side would exhaust itself first. 

John Maynard Smith, the biologist who first applied game theory to evolu- 
tion, modeled this kind of standoff as a War of Attrition game . 64 Each of two 
contestants competes for a valuable resource by trying to outlast the other, 
steadily accumulating costs as he waits. In the original scenario, they might 
be heavily armored animals competing for a territory who stare at each other 
until one of them leaves; the costs are the time and energy the animals waste 
in the standoff, which they could otherwise use in catching food or pursuing 
mates. A game of attrition is mathematically equivalent to an auction in which 
the highest bidder wins the prize and both sides have to pay the loser's low 
bid. And of course it can be analogized to a war in which the expenditure is 
reckoned in the lives of soldiers. 

The War of Attrition is one of those paradoxical scenarios in game theory 
(like the Prisoner's Dilemma, the Tragedy of the Commons, and the Dollar 
Auction) in which a set of rational actors pursuing their interests end up worse 


off than if they had put their heads together and come to a collective and bind- 
ing agreement. One might think that in an attrition game each side should do 
what bidders on eBay are advised to do: decide how much the contested 
resource is worth and bid only up to that limit. The problem is that this strategy 
can be gamed by another bidder. All he has to do is bid one more dollar (or wait 
just a bit longer, or commit another surge of soldiers), and he wins. He gets the 
prize for close to the amount you think it is worth, while you have to forfeit 
that amount too, without getting anything in return. You would be crazy to let 
that happen, so you are tempted to use the strategy "Always outbid him by a 
dollar," which he is tempted to adopt as well. You can see where this leads. 
Thanks to the perverse logic of an attrition game, in which the loser pays too, 
the bidders may keep bidding after the point at which the expenditure exceeds 
the value of the prize. They can no longer win, but each side hopes not to lose 
as much. The technical term for this outcome in game theory is "a ruinous 
situation." It is also called a "Pyrrhic victory"; the military analogy is profound. 

One strategy that can evolve in a War of Attrition game (where the expen- 
diture, recall, is in time) is for each player to wait a random amount of time, with 
an average wait time that is equivalent in value to what the resource is worth 
to them. In the long run, each player gets good value for his expenditure, but 
because the waiting times are random, neither is able to predict the surrender 
time of the other and reliably outlast him. In other words, they follow the rule: 
At every instant throw a pair of dice, and if they come up (say) 4, concede; if 
not, throw them again. This is, of course, like a Poisson process, and by now 
you know that it leads to an exponential distribution of wait times (since a 
longer and longer wait depends on a less and less probable run of tosses). Since 
the contest ends when the first side throws in the towel, the contest durations 
will also be exponentially distributed. Returning to our model where the 
expenditures are in soldiers rather than seconds, if real wars of attrition were 
like the "War of Attrition" modeled in game theory, and if all else were equal, 
then wars of attrition would fall into an exponential distribution of magnitudes. 

Of course, real wars fall into a power-law distribution, which has a thicker 
tail than an exponential (in this case, a greater number of severe wars). But an 
exponential can be transformed into a power law if the values are modulated 
by a second exponential process pushing in the opposite direction. And attri- 
tion games have a twist that might do just that. If one side in an attrition game 
were to leak its intention to concede in the next instant by, say, twitching or 
blanching or showing some other sign of nervousness, its opponent could 
capitalize on the "tell" by waiting just a bit longer, and it would win the prize 
every time. As Richard Dawkins has put it, in a species that often takes part 
in wars of attrition, one expects the evolution of a poker face. 

Now, one also might have guessed that organisms would capitalize on the 
opposite kind of signal, a sign of continuing resolve rather than impending 
surrender. If a contestant could adopt some defiant posture that means "I'll 


stand my ground; I won't back down," that would make it rational for his 
opposite number to give up and cut its losses rather than escalate to mutual 
ruin. But there's a reason we call it "posturing." Any coward can cross his arms 
and glower, but the other side can simply call his bluff. Only if a signal is 
costly — if the defiant party holds his hand over a candle, or cuts his arm with 
a knife — can he show that he means business. (Of course, paying a self- 
imposed cost would be worthwhile only if the prize is especially valuable to 
him, or if he had reason to believe that he could prevail over his opponent if 
the contest escalated.) 

In the case of a war of attrition, one can imagine a leader who has a chang- 
ing willingness to suffer a cost over time, increasing as the conflict proceeds 
and his resolve toughens. His motto would be: "We fight on so that our boys 
shall not have died in vain." This mindset, known as loss aversion, the sunk- 
cost fallacy, and throwing good money after bad, is patently irrational, but it 
is surprisingly pervasive in human decision-making . 65 People stay in an abu- 
sive marriage because of the years they have already put into it, or sit through 
a bad movie because they have already paid for the ticket, or try to reverse a 
gambling loss by doubling their next bet, or pour money into a boondoggle 
because they've already poured so much money into it. Though psychologists 
don't fully understand why people are suckers for sunk costs, a common expla- 
nation is that it signals a public commitment. The person is announcing: 
"When I make a decision, I'm not so weak, stupid, or indecisive that I can be 
easily talked out of it." In a contest of resolve like an attrition game, loss aver- 
sion could serve as a costly and hence credible signal that the contestant is not 
about to concede, preempting his opponent's strategy of outlasting him just 
one more round. 

I already mentioned some evidence from Richardson's dataset which sug- 
gests that combatants do fight longer when a war is more lethal: small wars 
show a higher probability of coming to an end with each succeeding year than 
do large wars . 66 The magnitude numbers in the Correlates of War Dataset also 
show signs of escalating commitment: wars that are longer in duration are not 
just costlier in fatalities; they are costlier than one would expect from their 
durations alone . 67 If we pop back from the statistics of war to the conduct of 
actual wars, we can see the mechanism at work. Many of the bloodiest wars 
in history owe their destructiveness to leaders on one or both sides pursuing 
a blatantly irrational loss-aversion strategy. Hitler fought the last months of 
World War II with a maniacal fury well past the point when defeat was all but 
certain, as did Japan. Lyndon Johnson's repeated escalations of the Vietnam 
War inspired a protest song that has served as a summary of people's under- 
standing of that destructive war: "We were waist-deep in the Big Muddy; The 
big fool said to push on." 

The systems biologist Jean-Baptiste Michel has pointed out to me how esca- 
lating commitments in a war of attrition could produce a power-law distribution. 


All we need to assume is that leaders keep escalating as a constant proportion 
of their past commitment — the size of each surge is, say, 10 percent of the num- 
ber of soldiers that have fought so far. A constant proportional increase would 
be consistent with the well-known discovery in psychology called Weber's Law: 
for an increase in intensity to be noticeable, it must be a constant proportion of 
the existing intensity. (If a room is illuminated by ten lightbulbs, you'll notice a 
brightening when an eleventh is switched on, but if it is illuminated by a hun- 
dred lightbulbs, you won't notice the hundred and first; someone would have 
to switch on another ten bulbs before you noticed the brightening.) Richardson 
observed that people perceive lost lives in the same way: "Contrast for example 
the many days of newspaper-sympathy over the loss of the British submarine 
Thetis in time of peace with the terse announcement of similar losses during the 
war. This contrast may be regarded as an example of the Weber-Fechner doctrine 
that an increment is judged relative to the previous amount." 68 The psychologist 
Paul Slovic has recently reviewed several experiments that support this obser- 
vation. 69 The quotation falsely attributed to Stalin, "One death is a tragedy; a 
million deaths is a statistic," gets the numbers wrong but captures a real fact 
about human psychology. 

If escalations are proportional to past commitments (and a constant propor- 
tion of soldiers sent to the battlefield are killed in battle), then losses will 
increase exponentially as a war drags on, like compound interest. And if wars 
are attrition games, their durations will also be distributed exponentially. 
Recall the mathematical law that a variable will fall into a power-law distribu- 
tion if it is an exponential function of a second variable that is distributed 
exponentially. 70 My own guess is that the combination of escalation and attri- 
tion is the best explanation for the power-law distribution of war magnitudes. 

Though we may not know exactly why wars fall into a power-law distribu- 
tion, the nature of that distribution — scale-free, thick-tailed — suggests that it 
involves a set of underlying processes in which size doesn't matter. Armed 
coalitions can always get a bit larger, wars can always last a bit longer, and 
losses can always get a bit heavier, with the same likelihood regardless of how 
large, long, or heavy they were to start with. 

The next obvious question about the statistics of deadly quarrels is: What 
destroys more lives, the large number of small wars or the few big ones? A 
power-law distribution itself doesn't give the answer. One can imagine a data- 
set in which the aggregate damage from the wars of each size adds up to the 
same number of deaths: one war with ten million deaths, ten wars with a mil- 
lion deaths, a hundred wars with a hundred thousand deaths, all the way 
down to ten million murders with one death apiece. But in fact, distributions 
with exponents greater than one (which is what we get for wars) will have the 
numbers skewed toward the tail. A power-law distribution with an exponent 
in this range is sometimes said to follow the 80:20 rule, also known as the 


Pareto Principle, in which, say, the richest 20 percent of the population controls 
80 percent of the wealth. The ratio may not be 80:20 exactly, but many power- 
law distributions have this kind of lopsidedness. For example, the 20 percent 
most popular Web sites get around two-thirds of the hits. 71 

Richardson added up the total number of deaths from all the deadly quar- 
rels in each magnitude range. The computer scientist Brian Hayes has plotted 
them in the histogram in figure 5-11. The gray bars, which tally the deaths from 
the elusive small quarrels (between 3 and 3,162 deaths), don't represent actual 
data, because they fall in the criminology-history crack and were not available 
in the sources Richardson consulted. Instead, they show hypothetical numbers 
that Richardson interpolated with a smooth curve between the murders and 
the smaller wars. 72 With or without them, the shape of the graph is striking: it 
has peaks at each end and a sag in the middle. That tells us that the most dam- 
aging kinds of lethal violence (at least from 1820 to 1952) were murders and world 
wars; all the other kinds of quarrels killed far fewer people. That has remained 
true in the sixty years since. In the United States, 37,000 military personnel died 
in the Korean War, and 58,000 died in Vietnam; no other war came close. Yet an 
average of 17,000 people are murdered in the country every year, adding up to 
almost a million deaths since 1950. 73 Likewise, in the world as a whole, homicides 
outnumber war-related deaths, even if one includes the indirect deaths from 
hunger and disease. 74 

Number of deaths per quarrel 

FIGURE 5-u. Total deaths from quarrels of different magnitudes 
Source: Graph from Hayes, 2002, based on data in Richardson, i960. 


Richardson also estimated the proportion of deaths that were caused by 
deadly quarrels of all magnitudes combined, from murders to world wars. 
The answer was 1.6 percent. He notes: "This is less than one might have 
guessed from the large amount of attention which quarrels attract. Those who 
enjoy wars can excuse their taste by saying that wars after all are much less 
deadly than disease." 75 Again, this continues to be true by a large margin. 76 

That the two world wars killed 77 percent of the people who died in all the 
wars that took place in a 130-year period is an extraordinary discovery. Wars 
don't even follow the 80:20 rule that we are accustomed to seeing in power-law 
distributions. They follow an 80:2 rule: almost 80 percent of the deaths were 
caused by 2 percent of the wars. 77 The lopsided ratio tells us that the global 
effort to prevent deaths in war should give the highest priority to preventing 
the largest wars. 

The ratio also underscores the difficulty of reconciling our desire for a 
coherent historical narrative with the statistics of deadly quarrels. In making 
sense of the 20th century, our desire for a good story arc is amplified by 
two statistical illusions. One is the tendency to see meaningful clusters in 
randomly spaced events. Another is the bell-curve mindset that makes extreme 
values seem astronomically unlikely, so when we come across an extreme 
event, we reason there must have been extraordinary design behind it. That 
mindset makes it difficult to accept that the worst two events in recent history, 
though unlikely, were not astronomically unlikely. Even if the odds had been 
increased by the tensions of the times, the wars did not have to start. And once 
they did, they had a constant chance of escalating to greater deadliness, no 
matter how deadly they already were. The two world wars were, in a sense, 
horrifically unlucky samples from a statistical distribution that stretches across 
a vast range of destruction. 


Richardson reached two broad conclusions about the statistics of war: their 
timing is random, and their magnitudes are distributed according to a power 
law. But he was unable to say much about how the two key parameters — the 
probability of wars, and the amount of damage they cause — change over time. 
His suggestion that wars were becoming less frequent but more lethal 
was restricted to the interval between 1820 and 1950 and limited by the spotty 
list of wars in his dataset. How much more do we know about the long-term 
trajectory of war today? 

There is no good dataset for all wars throughout the world since the start 
of recorded history, and we wouldn't know how to interpret it if there were. 
Societies have undergone such radical and uneven changes over the centuries 
that a single death toll for the entire world would sum over too many different 
kinds of societies. But the political scientist Jack Levy has assembled a dataset 


that gives us a clear view of the trajectory of war in a particularly important 
slice of space and time. 

The time span is the era that began in the late 1400s, when gunpowder, 
ocean navigation, and the printing press are said to have inaugurated the 
modern age (using one of the many definitions of the word modern). That is 
also the time at which sovereign states began to emerge from the medieval 
quilt of baronies and duchies. 

The countries that Levy focused on are the ones that belong to the great 
power system — the handful of states in a given epoch that can throw their 
weight around the world. Levy found that at any time a small number of eight- 
hundred-pound gorillas are responsible for a majority of the mayhem/ 8 The 
great powers participated in about 70 percent of all the wars that Wright 
included in his half-millennium database for the entire world, and four of 
them have the dubious honor of having participated in at least a fifth of all 
European wars. 79 (This remains true today: France, the U.K., the United States, 
and the USSR/Russia have been involved in more international conflicts since 
World War II than any other countries.) 80 Countries that slip in or out of the 
great power league fight far more wars when they are in than when they are 
out. One more advantage of focusing on great powers is that with footprints 
that large, it's unlikely that any war they fought would have been missed by 
the scribblers of the day. 

As we might predict from the lopsided power-law distribution of war mag- 
nitudes, the wars among great powers (especially the wars that embroiled 
several great powers at a time) account for a substantial proportion of all 
recorded war deaths. 81 According to the African proverb (like most African 
proverbs, attributed to many different tribes), when elephants fight, it is the 
grass that suffers. And these elephants have a habit of getting into fights with 
one another because they are not leashed by some larger suzerain but con- 
stantly eye each other in a state of nervous Hobbesian anarchy. 

Levy set out technical criteria for being a great power and listed the countries 
that met them between 1495 and 1975. Most of them are large European states: 
France and England/Great Britain/U.K. for the entire period; the entities ruled 
by the Habsburg dynasty through 1918; Spain until 1808; the Netherlands and 
Sweden in the 17th and early 18th centuries; Russia/USSR from 1721 on; Prussia/ 
Germany from 1740 on; and Italy from 1861 to 1943. But the system also includes 
a few powers outside Europe: the Ottoman Empire until 1699; the United States 
from 1898 on; Japan from 1905 to 1945; and China from 1949. Levy assembled 
a dataset of wars that had at least a thousand battle deaths a year (a conventional 
cutoff for a "war" in many datasets, such as the Correlates of War Project), that 
had a great power on at least one side, and that had a state on the other side. 
He excluded colonial wars and civil wars unless a great power was butting 
into a civil war on the side of the insurgency, which would mean that the war 
had pitted a great power against a foreign government. Using the Correlates 


of War Dataset, and in consultation with Levy, I have extended his data through 
the quarter-century ending in 2000. 82 

Let's start with the clashes of the titans — the wars with at least one great 
power on each side. Among them are what Levy called "general wars" but 
which could also be called "world wars," at least in the sense that World 
War I deserves that name — not that the fighting spanned the globe, but that 
it embroiled most of the world's great powers. These include the Thirty Years' 
War (1618-48; six of the seven great powers), the Dutch War of Louis XIV (1672- 
78; six of seven), the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-97; five °f seven), 
the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13; five of six), the War of the Austrian 
Succession (1739-48; six of six), the Seven Years' War (1755-63; six of six), and 
the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815; six of six), together 
with the two world wars. There are more than fifty other wars in which two 
or more great powers faced off. 

One indication of the impact of war in different eras is the percentage of 
time that people had to endure wars between great powers, with their disrup- 
tions, sacrifices, and changes in priorities. Figure 5-12 shows the percentage 
of years in each quarter-century that saw the great powers of the day at war. 
In two of the early quarter-centuries (1550-75 and 1625-50), the line bumps up 
against the ceiling: great powers fought each other in all 25 of the 25 years. 
These periods were saturated with the horrendous European Wars of Religion, 
including the First Huguenot War and the Thirty Years' War. From there the 
trend is unmistakably downward. Great powers fought each other for less of 

FIGURE 5-12. Percentage of years in which the great powers fought one another, 

Source: Graph adapted from Levy & Thompson, 2011. Data are aggregated over 25-year periods. 


the time as the centuries proceeded, though with a few partial reversals, includ- 
ing the quarters with the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and with 
the two world wars. At the toe of the graph on the right one can see the first 
signs of the Long Peace. The quarter-century from 1950 to 1975 had one war 
between the great powers (the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, with the United 
States and China on opposite sides), and there has not been once since. 

Now let's zoom out and look at a wider view of war: the hundred-plus wars 
with a great power on one side and any country whatsoever, great or not, on the 
other. 83 With this larger dataset we can unpack the years-at-war measure from 
the previous graph into two dimensions. The first is frequency. Figure 5-13 plots 
how many wars were fought in each quarter-century. Once again we see a 
decline over the five centuries: the great powers have become less and less likely 
to fall into wars. During the last quarter of the 20th, only four wars met Levy's 
criteria: the two wars between China and Vietnam (1979 and 1987), the UN- 
sanctioned war to reverse Iraq's invasion of Kuwait (1991), and NATO's bomb- 
ing of Yugoslavia to halt its displacement of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo (1999). 

The second dimension is duration. Figure 5-14 shows how long, on average, 
these wars dragged on. Once again the trend is downward, though with a 
spike around the middle of the 17th century. This is not a simpleminded con- 
sequence of counting the Thirty Years' War as lasting exactly thirty years; 
following the practice of other historians. Levy divided it into four more cir- 
cumscribed wars. Even after that slicing, the Wars of Religion in that era were 

FIGURE 5-13. Frequency ofwars involving the great powers, 1500-2000 

Sources: Graph from Levy, 1983, except the last point, which is based on the Correlates of War Inter- 
State War Dataset, 1816-1997, Sarkees, 2000, and, for 1997-99, the PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset 1946- 
2008, Lacina & Gleditsch, 2005. Data are aggregated over 25-year periods. 


FIGURE 5-14. Duration of wars involving the great powers, 1500-2000 

Sources: Graph from Levy, 1983, except the last point, which is based on the Correlates of War Inter- 
State War Dataset, 1816-1997, Sarkees, 2000, and, for 1997-99, the PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset 1946- 
2008, Lacina & Gleditsch, 2005. Data are aggregated over 25-year periods. 

brutally long. But from then on the great powers sought to end their wars soon 
after beginning them, culminating in the last quarter of the 20th century, when 
the four wars involving great powers lasted an average of 97 days. 84 

What about destructiveness? Figure 5-15 plots the log of the number of 
battle deaths in the wars fought by at least one great power. The loss of life 
rises from 1500 through the beginning of the 19th century, bounces downward 
in the rest of that century, resumes its climb through the two world wars, and 
then plunges precipitously during the second half of the 20th century. One 
gets an impression that over most of the half-millennium, the wars that did 
take place were getting more destructive, presumably because of advances in 
military technology and organization. If so, the crossing trends — fewer wars, 
but more destructive wars — would be consistent with Richardson's conjecture, 
though stretched out over a fivefold greater time span. 

We can't prove that this is what we're seeing, because figure 5-15 folds 
together the frequency of wars and their magnitudes, but Levy suggests that 
pure destructiveness can be separated out in a measure he calls "concentra- 
tion," namely the damage a conflict causes per nation per year of war. Figure 
5-16 plots this measure. In this graph the steady increase in the deadliness of 
great power wars through World War II is more apparent, because it is not 
hidden by the paucity of those wars in the later 19th century. What is striking 
about the latter half of the 20th century is the sudden reversal of the crisscross- 
ing trends of the 450 years preceding it. The late 20th century was unique in 


FIGURE 5-15. Deaths in wars involving the great powers, 1500-2000 

Sources: Graph from Levy, 1983, except the last point, which is based on the Correlates of War Inter- 
State War Dataset, 1816-1997, Sarkees, 2000, and, for 1997-99, the PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset 1946- 
2008, Lacina & Gleditsch, 2005. Data are aggregated over 25-year periods. 

FIGURE 5-16. Concentration of deaths in wars involving the great powers, 1500-2000 
Sources: Graph from Levy, 1983, except the last point, which is based on the Correlates of War Inter- 
State War Dataset, 1816-1997, Sarkees, 2000, and, for 1997-99, the PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset 1946- 
2008, Lacina & Gleditsch, 2005. Data are aggregated over 25-year periods. 


seeing declines both in the number of great power wars and in the killing 
power of each one — a pair of downslopes that captures the war-aversion of 
the Long Peace. Before we turn from statistics to narratives in order to under- 
stand the events behind these trends, let's be sure they can be seen in a wider 
view of the trajectory of war. 


Wars involving great powers offer a circumscribed but consequential theater 
in which we can look at historical trends in war. Another such theater is 
Europe. Not only is it the continent with the most extensive data on wartime 
fatalities, but it has had an outsize influence on the world as a whole. During 
the past half-millennium, much of the world has been part of a European 
empire, and the remaining parts have fought wars with those empires. And 
trends in war and peace, no less than in other spheres of human activity such 
as technology, fashion, and ideas, often originated in Europe and spilled out 
to the rest of the world. 

The extensive historical data from Europe also give us an opportunity to 
broaden our view of organized conflict from interstate wars involving the 
great powers to wars between less powerful nations, conflicts that miss the 
thousand-death cutoff, civil wars, and genocides, together with deaths of civil- 
ians from famine and disease. What kind of picture do we get if we aggregate 
these other forms of violence — the tall spine of little conflicts as well as the 
long tail of big ones? 

The political scientist Peter Brecke is compiling the ultimate inventory of 
deadly quarrels, which he calls the Conflict Catalog. 85 His goal is to amalgam- 
ate every scrap of information on armed conflict in the entire corpus of 
recorded history since 1400. Brecke began by merging the lists of wars assem- 
bled by Richardson, Wright, Sorokin, Eckhardt, the Correlates of War Project, 
the historian Evan Luard, and the political scientist Kalevi Holsti. Most have 
a high threshold for including a conflict and legalistic criteria for what counts 
as a state. Brecke loosened the criteria to include any recorded conflict that 
had as few as thirty-two fatalities in a year (magnitude 1.5 on the Richardson 
scale) and that involved any political unit that exercised effective sovereignty 
over a territory. He then went to the library and scoured the histories and 
atlases, including many published in other countries and languages. As we 
would expect from the power-law distribution, loosening the criteria brought 
in not just a few cases at the margins but a flood of them: Brecke discovered 
at least three times as many conflicts as had been listed in all the previous 
datasets combined. The Conflict Catalog so far contains 4,560 conflicts that 
took place between 1400 CE and 2000 CE (3,700 of which have been entered 
into a spreadsheet), and it will eventually contain 6,000. About a third of them 
have estimates of the number of fatalities, which Brecke divides into military 


deaths (soldiers killed in battle) and total deaths (which includes the indirect 
deaths of civilians from war-caused starvation and disease). Brecke kindly 
provided me with the dataset as it stood in 2010. 

Let's start by simply counting the conflicts — not just the wars embroiling 
great powers, but deadly quarrels great and small. These tallies, plotted in 
figure 5-17, offer an independent view of the history of war in Europe. 

Once again we see a decline in one of the dimensions of armed conflict: how 
often they break out. When the story begins in 1400, European states were start- 
ing conflicts at a rate of more than three a year. That rate has caromed downward 
to virtually none in Western Europe and to less than one conflict per year in 
Eastern Europe. Even that bounce is a bit misleading, because half of the conflicts 
were in countries that are coded in the dataset as "Europe" only because they 
were once part of the Ottoman or Soviet empire; today they are usually classi- 
fied as Middle Eastern or Central and South Asian (for example, conflicts in 
Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and Armenia). 86 The other Eastern Euro- 
pean conflicts were in former republics of Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union. These 
regions — Yugoslavia, Russia/USSR, and Turkey — were also responsible for the 
spike of European conflicts in the first quarter of the 20th century. 

What about the human toll of the conflicts? Efere is where the capaciousness 

FIGURE 5-17. Conflicts per year in greater Europe, 1400-2000 

Sources: Conflict Catalog, Brecke, 1999; Long & Brecke, 2003. The conflicts are aggregated over 25-year 
periods and include interstate and civil wars, genocides, insurrections, and riots. "Western Europe" 
includes the territories of the present-day U.K., Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, France, Belgium, 
Luxembourg, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. "Eastern 
Europe" includes the territories of the present-day Cyprus, Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, 
Hungary, Romania, the republics formerly making up Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey 
(both Europe and Asia), Russia (Europe), Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other Caucasus republics. 


of the Conflict Catalog comes in handy. The power-law distribution tells us 
that the biggest of the great power wars should account for the lion's share of 
the deaths from all wars — at least, from all wars that exceed the thousand- 
death cutoff, which make up the data I have plotted so far. But Richardson 
alerted us to the possibility that a large number of smaller conflicts missed by 
traditional histories and datasets could, in theory, pile up into a substantial 
number of additional deaths (the gray bars in figure 5-11). The Conflict Cata- 
log is the first long-term dataset that reaches down into that gray area and 
tries to list the skirmishes, riots, and massacres that fall beneath the traditional 
military horizon (though of course many more in the earlier centuries may 
never have been recorded). Unfortunately the catalog is a work in progress, 
and at present fewer than half the conflicts have fatality figures attached to 
them. Until it is completed, we can get a crude glimpse of the trajectory of 
conflict deaths in Europe by filling in the missing values using the median of 
the death tolls from that quarter-century. Brian Atwood and I have interpo- 
lated these values, added up the direct and indirect deaths from conflicts of 
all types and sizes, divided them by the population of Europe in each period, 
and plotted them on a linear scale. 87 Figure 5-18 presents this maximalist 
(albeit tentative) picture of the history of violent conflict in Europe: 

The scaling by population size did not eliminate an overall upward trend 
through 1950, which shows that Europe's ability to kill people outpaced its 
ability to breed more of them. But what really pops out of the graph are three 

FIGURE 5-18. Rate of death in conflicts in greater Europe, 1400-2000 

Sources: Conflict Catalog, Brecke, 1999; Long & Brecke, 2003. Figures are from the "Total Fatalities" 
column, aggregated over 25-year periods. Redundant entries were eliminated. Missing entries were 
filled in with the median for that quarter-century. Historical population estimates are from McEv- 
edy & Jones, 1978, taken at the end of the quarter-century. "Europe" is defined as in figure 5-17. 


hemoclysms. Other than the quarter-century containing World War II, the 
most deadly time to have been alive in Europe was during the Wars of Religion 
in the early 17th century, followed by the quarter with World War I, then the 
period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. 

The career of organized violence in Europe, then, looks something like this. 
There was a low but steady baseline of conflicts from 1400 to 1600, followed 
by the bloodbath of the Wars of Religion, a bumpy decline through 1775 fol- 
lowed by the French troubles, a noticeable lull in the middle and late 19th 
century, and then, after the 20th-century Hemoclysm, the unprecedented 
ground-hugging levels of the Long Peace. 

How can we make sense of the various slow drifts and sudden lurches in 
violence during the past half-millennium among the great powers and in 
Europe? We have reached the point at which statistics must hand the baton 
over to narrative history. In the next sections I'll tell the story behind the graphs 
by combining the numbers from the conflict-counters with the narratives from 
historians and political scientists such as David Bell, Niall Ferguson, Azar 
Gat, Michael Howard, John Keegan, Evan Luard, John Mueller, James Payne, 
and James Sheehan. 

Here is a preview. Think of the zigzags in figure 5-18 as a composite of four 
currents. Modern Europe began in a Hobbesian state of frequent but small 
wars. The wars became fewer in number as political units became consolidated 
into larger states. At the same time the wars that did occur were becoming 
more lethal, because of a military revolution that created larger and more 
effective armies. Finally, in different periods European countries veered 
between totalizing ideologies that subordinated individual people's interests 
to a utopian vision and an Enlightenment humanism that elevated those inter- 
ests as the ultimate value. 


The backdrop of European history during most of the past millennium is ever- 
present warring. Carried over from the knightly raiding and feuding in medi- 
eval times, the wars embroiled every kind of political unit that emerged in the 
ensuing centuries. 

The sheer number of European wars is mind-boggling. Brecke has compiled 
a prequel to the Conflict Catalog which lists 1,148 conflicts from 900 CE to 1400 
CE, and the catalog itself lists another 1,166 from 1400 CE to the present — about 
two new conflicts a year for eleven hundred years. 88 The vast majority of these 
conflicts, including most of the major wars involving great powers, are outside 
the consciousness of all but the most assiduous historians. To take some ran- 
dom examples, the Dano-Swedish War (1516-25), the Schmalkaldic War (1546- 
47), the Franco-Savoian War (1600-1601), the Turkish-Polish War (1673-76), the 


War of Julich Succession (1609-10), and the Austria-Sardinia War (1848-49) 
elicit blank stares from most educated people. 89 

Warring was not just prevalent in practice but accepted in theory. Howard 
notes that among the ruling classes, "Peace was regarded as a brief interval 
between wars," and war was "an almost automatic activity, part of the natural 
order of things." 90 Luard adds that while many battles in the 15th and 16th 
centuries had moderately low casualty rates, "even when casualties were high, 
there is little evidence that they weighed heavily with rulers or military com- 
manders. They were seen, for the most part, as the inevitable price of war, 
which in itself was honourable and glorious." 91 

What were they fighting over? The motives were the "three principal causes 
of quarrel" identified by Hobbes: predation (primarily of land), preemption 
of predation by others, and credible deterrence or honor. The principal differ- 
ence between European wars and the raiding and feuding of tribes, knights, 
and warlords was that the wars were carried out by organized political units 
rather than by individuals or clans. Conquest and plunder were the principal 
means of upward mobility in the centuries when wealth resided in land and 
resources rather than in commerce and innovation. Nowadays ruling a domin- 
ion doesn't strike most of us as an appealing career choice. But the expression 
"to live like a king" reminds us that centuries ago it was the main route to 
amenities like plentiful food, comfortable shelter, pretty objects, entertainment 
on demand, and children who survived their first year of life. The perennial 
nuisance of royal bastards also reminds us that a lively sex life was a perqui- 
site of European kings no less than of harem-holding sultans, with "serving 
maids" a euphemism for concubines. 92 

But what the leaders sought was not just material rewards but a spiritual 
need for dominance, glory, and grandeur — the bliss of contemplating a map 
and seeing more square inches tinted in the color that represents your domin- 
ion than someone else's. Luard notes that even when rulers had little genuine 
authority over their titular realms, they went to war for "the theoretical right 
of overlordship: who owed allegiance to whom and for which territories." 93 
Many of the wars were pissing contests. Nothing was at stake but the willing- 
ness of one leader to pay homage to another in the form of titles, courtesies, 
and seating arrangements. Wars could be triggered by symbolic affronts such 
as a refusal to dip a flag, to salute colors, to remove heraldic symbols from a 
coat of arms, or to follow protocols of ambassadorial precedence. 94 

Though the motive to lead a dominant political bloc was constant through 
European history, the definition of the blocs changed, and with it the nature 
and extent of the fighting. In War in International Society, the most systematic 
attempt to combine a dataset of war with narrative history, Luard proposes 
that the sweep of armed conflict in Europe may be divided into five "ages," 
each defined by the nature of the blocs that fought for dominance. In fact 


Luard's ages are more like overlapping strands in a rope than boxcars on a 
track, but if we keep that in mind, his scheme helps to organize the major 
historical shifts in war. 

Luard calls the first of his ages, which ran from 1400 to 1559, the Age of Dynas- 
ties. In this epoch, royal "houses," or extended coalitions based on kinship, 
vied for control of European turfs. A little biology shows why the idea of bas- 
ing leadership on inheritance is a recipe for endless wars of succession. 

Rulers always face the dilemma of how to reconcile their thirst for everlast- 
ing power with an awareness of their own mortality. A natural solution is to 
designate an offspring, usually a firstborn son, as a successor. Not only do 
people think of their genetic progeny as an extension of themselves, but filial 
affection ought to inhibit any inclination of the successor to hurry things along 
with a little regicide. This would solve the succession problem in a species 
in which an organism could bud off an adult clone of himself shortly 
before he died. But many aspects of the biology of Homo sapiens confound the 

First, humans are altricial, with immature newborns and a long childhood. 
That means that a father can die while a son is too young to rule. Second, 
character traits are polygenic, and hence obey the statistical law called regres- 
sion to the mean: however exceptional in courage or wisdom a parent may be, 
on average his or her children will be less so. (As the critic Rebecca West wrote, 
645 years of the Habsburg dynasty produced "no genius, only two rulers of 
ability . . . , countless dullards, and not a few imbeciles and lunatics.") 95 Third, 
humans reproduce sexually, which means that every person is the genetic 
legacy of two lineages, not one, each of which can lay a claim to the person's 
loyalties when he is alive and to his perquisites when he dies. Fourth, humans 
are sexually dimorphic, and though the female of the species may, on average, 
get less emotional gratification from conquest and tyranny than the male, 
many are capable of cultivating the taste when the opportunity presents itself. 
Fifth, humans are mildly polygynous, so males are apt to sire bastards, who 
become rivals to their legitimate heirs. Sixth, humans are multiparous, having 
several offspring over their reproductive careers. This sets the stage for parent- 
offspring conflict, in which a son may want to take over a lineage's reproduc- 
tive franchise before a father is through with it; and sibling rivalry, in which 
a laterborn may covet the parental investment lavished on a firstborn. Sev- 
enth, humans are nepotistic, investing in their siblings' children as well as in 
their own. Each of these biological realities, and often several at a time, left 
room for disagreement about who was the appropriate successor of a dead 
monarch, and the Europeans hashed out these disagreements in countless 
dynastic wars. 96 


Luard designates 1559 as the inception of the Age of Religions, which lasted 
until the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648. Rival reli- 
gious coalitions, often aligning with rulers according to the principle Un roi, 
line loi, line foi (One king, one law, one faith), fought for control of cities and 
states in at least twenty-five international wars and twenty-six civil wars. Usu- 
ally Protestants warred against Catholics, but during Russia's Time of Troubles 
(an interregnum between the reign of Boris Godunov and the establishment 
of the Romanov dynasty), Catholic and Orthodox factions vied for control. 
The religious fever was not confined to Christendom: Christian countries 
fought Muslim Turkey, and Sunni and Shiite Muslims fought in four wars 
between Turkey and Persia. 

This is the age that contributed atrocities number 13, 14, and 17 to the 
population-adjusted top-twenty-one list on page 195, and it is marked by pin- 
nacles of death in figure 5-15 and figure 5-18. The era broke new records for 
killing partly because of advances in military technology such as muskets, 
pikes, and artillery. But that could not have been the main cause of the carnage, 
because in subsequent centuries the technology kept getting deadlier while 
the death toll came back to earth. Luard singles out religious passion as the 

It was above all the extension of warfare to civilians, who (especially if they 
worshipped the wrong god) were frequently regarded as expendable, which 
now increased the brutality of war and the level of casualties. Appalling 
bloodshed could be attributed to divine wrath. The duke of Alva had the 
entire male population of Naarden killed after its capture (1572), regarding 
this as a judgement of God for their hard-necked obstinacy in resisting; just 
as Cromwell later, having allowed his troops to sack Drogheda with appall- 
ing bloodshed (1649), declared that this was a “righteous judgement of God." 
Thus by a cruel paradox those who fought in the name of their faith were 
often less likely than any to show humanity to their opponents in war. And 
this was reflected in the appalling loss of life, from starvation and the 
destruction of crops as much as from warfare, which occurred in the areas 
most ravaged by religious conflict in this age. 97 

Names like the “Thirty Years' War" and the "Eighty Years' War," together 
with the never-equaled spike in war durations shown in figure 5-14, tell us that 
the Wars of Religion were not just intense but interminable. The historian of 
diplomacy Garrett Mattingly notes that in this period a major mechanism for 
ending war was disabled: "As religious issues came to dominate political ones, 
any negotiations with the enemies of one state looked more and more like her- 
esy and treason. The questions which divided Catholics from Protestants had 
ceased to be negotiable. Consequently . . . diplomatic contacts diminished." 98 It 


would not be the last time ideological fervor would act as an accelerant to a 
military conflagration. 


Historians consider the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 not only to have put out 
the Wars of Religion hut to have established the first version of the modern 
international order. Europe was now partitioned into sovereign states rather 
than being a crazy quilt of jurisdictions nominally overseen by the Pope and 
the Holy Roman Emperor. This Age of Sovereignty saw the ascendancy of 
states that were still linked to dynasties and religions but that really hung 
their prestige on their governments, territories, and commercial empires. It 
was this gradual consolidation of sovereign states (culminating a process that 
began well before 1648) that set off the two opposing trends that have emerged 
from every statistical study of war we have seen: wars were getting less fre- 
quent but more damaging. 

A major reason wars declined in number was that the units that could fight 
each other declined in number. Recall from chapter 3 that the number of 
political units in Europe shrank from five hundred around the time of the 
Thirty Years' War to fewer than thirty in the 1950s." Now, you might think 
that this makes the decline in the frequency of wars just an accounting trick. 
With the stroke of an eraser, diplomats remove a line on a map that separates 
warring parties and magically take their conflict out of the "interstate war" 
books and hide it in the "civil war" books. But in fact the reduction is real. As 
Richardson showed, when we hold area constant, there are far fewer civil wars 
within national boundaries than there are interstate wars crossing them. (Just 
think of England, which hasn't had a true civil war in 350 years, but has fought 
many interstate wars since then.) It is another illustration of the logic of the 
Leviathan. As small baronies and duchies coalesced into larger kingdoms, 
the centralized authorities prevented them from warring with each other for 
the same reason that they prevented individual citizens from murdering each 
other (and that farmers prevent their livestock from killing each other): as far 
as an overlord is concerned, private quarrels within his domain are a dead 
loss. The reduction in the frequency of war is thus another manifestation of 
Elias's Civilizing Process. 

The greater lethality of the wars that did take place was the result of a devel- 
opment called the military revolution. 100 States got serious about war. This was 
partly a matter of improved weaponry, especially cannons and guns, but it was 
more a matter of recruiting greater numbers of people to kill and be killed. In 
medieval Europe and the Age of Dynasties, rulers were understandably ner- 
vous about arming large numbers of their peasants and training them in com- 
bat. (One can hear them asking themselves: What could possibly go wrong?) 


Instead they assembled ad hoc militias by hiring mercenaries or conscripting 
miscreants and ne'er-do-wells who could not buy their way out. In his essay 
"War Making and State Making as Organized Crime," Charles Tilly wrote: 

In times of war . . . , the managers of full-fledged states often commissioned 
privateers, hired sometime bandits to raid their enemies, and encouraged 
their regular troops to take booty. In royal service, soldiers and sailors were 
often expected to provide for themselves by preying on the civilian popula- 
tion: commandeering, raping, looting, taking prizes. When demobilized, 
they commonly continued the same practices, but without the same royal 
protection; demobilized ships became pirate vessels, demobilized troops 

It also worked the other way: A king's best source of armed supporters 
was sometimes the world of outlaws. Robin Hood's conversion to royal 
archer may be a myth, but the myth records a practice. The distinctions 
between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" users of violence came clear only 
very slowly, in the process during which the states' armed forces became 
relatively unified and permanent. 101 

As armed forces became more unified and permanent, they also became 
more effective. The thugs who had made up the earlier militias could hurt a 
lot of civilians, but they were not terribly effective in organized combat because 
bravery and discipline held no appeal. Mueller explains: 

The motto for the criminal, after all, is not a variation of "Semper fi," "All 
for one and one for all," "Duty, honor, country," "Banzai," or "Remember 
Pearl Harbor," but "Take the money and run." Indeed, for a criminal to per- 
ish in battle (or in the commission of a bank robbery) is essentially absurd; 
it is profoundly irrational to die for the thrill of violence and even more so 
for the procurement of booty, because you can't, after all, take either one 
with you. 102 

But during the military revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, states 
began to form professional standing armies. They conscripted large numbers 
of men from a cross section of society rather than just from the dregs at the 
bottom. They used a combination of drill, indoctrination, and brutal punish- 
ment to train them for organized combat. And they instilled in them a code 
of discipline, stoicism, and valor. The result was that when two of these armies 
clashed, they could rack up high body counts in a hurry. 

The military historian Azar Gat has argued that "revolution" is a misnomer 
for what was really a gradual development. 103 The process of making armies 
more effective was part of the centuries-long wave of technological and 
organizational change that made everything more effective. Perhaps an even 


greater advance in battlefield carnage than the original military revolution 
has been attributed to Napoleon, who replaced set battles in which both sides 
tried to conserve their soldiers with bold attacks in which a country would 
deploy every available resource to inflict all-out defeat on its enemy. 104 Yet 
another "advance" was the tapping of the Industrial Revolution, beginning in 
the 19th century, to feed and equip ever larger quantities of soldiers and trans- 
port them to the battlefront more quickly. The renewable supply of cannon 
fodder stoked the games of attrition that pushed wars farther out along the 
tail of the power-law distribution. 

During this long run-up in military power, there was a second force (together 
with the consolidation of states) that drove down the frequency of combat. 
Many historians have seen the 18th century as a time of respite in the long 
European history of war. Ixt the preceding chapter I mentioned that imperial 
powers like Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, and Spain stopped compet- 
ing in the great power game and redirected their energies from conquest to 
commerce. Brecke writes of a "relatively pacific 18th century" (at least from 
1713 to 1789), which can be seen as a U in figure 5-17 and as a shallow lopsided 
W between the peaks for the religious and French wars in figure 5-18. Luard 
notes that in the Age of Sovereignty from 1648 to 1789, "objectives were often 
relatively limited; and many wars in any case ended in a draw, from which no 
country secured its maximum aims. Many wars were lengthy, but the method 
of fighting was often deliberately restrained and casualties were less heavy 
than in either the preceding age or subsequent ages." To be sure, the century 
saw some bloody combat, such as the world war known as the Seven Years' 
War, but as David Bell notes, "Historians need to be able to make distinctions 
between shades of horror, and if the eighteenth century did not exactly reduce 
the slavering dogs of war to 'performing poodles' . . . , its conflicts still ranked 
among the least horrific in European history." 105 

As we saw in chapter 4, this tranquillity was a part of the Humanitarian 
Revolution connected with the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, and the 
dawn of classical liberalism. The calming of religious fervor meant that wars 
were no longer inflamed with eschatological meaning, so leaders could cut 
deals rather than fight to the last man. Sovereign states were becoming com- 
mercial powers, which tend to favor positive-sum trade over zero-sum con- 
quest. Popular writers were deconstructing honor, equating war with murder, 
ridiculing Europe's history of violence, and taking the viewpoints of soldiers 
and conquered peoples. Philosophers were redefining government from a 
means of implementing the whims of a monarch to a means for enhancing 
the life, liberty, and happiness of individual people, and tried to think up ways 
to limit the power of political leaders and incentivize them to avoid war. The 
ideas trickled upward and infiltrated the attitudes of at least some of the rul- 
ers of the day. While their "enlightened absolutism" was still absolutism, it 


was certainly better than unenlightened absolutism. And liberal democracy 
(which, as we shall see, appears to be a pacifying force) got its first toeholds 
in the United States and Great Britain. 


Of course, it all went horribly wrong. The French Revolution and the French 
Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars caused as many as 4 million deaths, 
earning the sequence a spot in the twenty-one worst things people have ever 
done to each other, and poking up a major peak in the graph of war deaths in 
figure 5-18. 

Luard designates 1789 as the start of the Age of Nationalism. The players 
in the preceding Age of Sovereignty had been sprawling dynastic empires 
that were not pinned to a "nation" in the sense of a group of people sharing a 
homeland, a language, and a culture. This new age was populated by states 
that were better aligned with nations and that competed with other nation- 
states for preeminence. Nationalist yearnings set off thirty wars of indepen- 
dence in Europe and led to autonomy for Belgium, Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, 
and Serbia. They also inspired the wars of national unification of Italy and of 
Germany. The peoples of Asia and Africa were not yet deemed worthy of 
national self-expression, so the European nation-states enhanced their own 
glory by colonizing them. 

World War I, in this scheme, was a culmination of these nationalist long- 
ings. It was ignited by Serbian nationalism against the Habsburg Empire, 
inflamed by nationalist loyalties that pitted Germanic peoples against Slavic 
ones (and soon against the British and the French), and ended with the dis- 
memberment of the multiethnic Habsburg and Ottoman empires into the new 
nation-states of Central and Eastern Europe. 

Luard ends his Age of Nationalism in 1917. That was the year the United 
States entered the war and rebranded it as a struggle of democracy against 
autocracy, and in which the Russian Revolution created the first communist 
state. The world then entered the Age of Ideology, in which democracy and 
communism fought Nazism in World War II and each other during the Cold 
War. Writing in 1986, Luard dangled a dash after "1917"; today we might close 
it with "1989." 

The concept of an Age of Nationalism is a bit procrustean. The age begins with 
the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars because they were inflamed by 
the national spirit of France, but these wars were just as inflamed by the ideo- 
logical residue of the French Revolution, well before the so-called Age of Ideology. 
Also, the age is an unwieldy sandwich, with massively destructive wars at each 
end and two record-breaking intervals of peace (1815-54 and 1871-1914) in the 


A better way to make sense of the past two centuries, Michael Howard has 
argued, is to see them as a battle for influence among four forces — Enlightenment 
humanism, conservatism, nationalism, and utopian ideologies — which some- 
times joined up in temporary coalitions. 106 Napoleonic France, because it 
emerged from the French Revolution, became associated in Europe with the 
French Enlightenment. In fact it is better classified as the first implementation 
of fascism. Though Napoleon did implement a few rational reforms such as 
the metric system and codes of civil law (which survive in many French- 
influenced regions today), in most ways he wrenched the clock back from the 
humanistic advances of the Enlightenment. He seized power in a coup, stamped 
out constitutional government, reinstituted slavery, glorified war, had the Pope 
crown him emperor, restored Catholicism as the state religion, installed three 
brothers and a brother-in-law on foreign thrones, and waged ruthless cam- 
paigns of territorial aggrandizement with a criminal disregard for human life. 

Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, Bell has shown, were consumed by 
a combination of French nationalism and utopian ideology. 107 The ideology, 
like the versions of Christianity that came before it and the fascism and com- 
munism that would follow it, was messianic, apocalyptic, expansionist, and 
certain of its own rectitude. And it viewed its opponents as irredeemably evil: 
as existential threats that had to be eliminated in pursuit of a holy cause. Bell 
notes that the militant utopianism was a disfigurement of the Enlightenment 
ideal of humanitarian progress. To the revolutionaries, Kant's "goal of per- 
petual peace had value not because it conformed to a fundamental moral law 
but because it conformed to the historical progress of civilization. . . . And so 
they opened the door to the idea that in the name of future peace, any and all 
means might be justified — including even exterminatory war." 108 Kant himself 
despised this turn, noting that such a war "would allow perpetual peace only 
upon the graveyard of the whole human race." And the American framers, 
equally aware of the crooked timber of humanity, were positively phobic about 
the prospect of imperial or messianic leaders. 

After the French ideology had been disseminated across Europe at the point 
of a bayonet and driven back at enormous cost, it elicited a slew of reactions, which 
as we saw in chapter 4 are often lumped together as counter-Enlightenments. 
Howard sees the common denominator as "the view that man is not simply an 
individual who by the light of reason and observation can formulate laws on the 
basis of which he can create a just and peaceful society, but rather a member of a 
community that has moulded him in a fashion he himself cannot fully compre- 
hend, and which has a primary claim on his loyalties." 

Recall that there were two counter-Enlightenments, which reacted to the 
French disruptions in opposite ways. The first was Edmund Burke's conser- 
vatism, which held that a society's customs were time-tested implementations 
of a civilizing process that had tamed humanity's dark side and as such 
deserved respect alongside the explicit formal propositions of intellectuals 


and reformers. Burkean conservatism, itself a fine application of reason, rep- 
resented a small tweaking of Enlightenment humanism. But that ideal was 
blown to bits in Johann Gottfried von Herder's romantic nationalism, which 
held that an ethnic group— in the case of Herder, the German Volk — had 
unique qualities that could not be submerged into the supposed universality 
of humankind, and that were held together by ties of blood and soil rather 
than by a reasoned social contract. 

According to Howard, "this dialectic between Enlightenment and Counter- 
Enlightenment, between the individual and the tribe, was to pervade, and to 
a large extent shape, the history of Europe throughout the nineteenth century, 
and of the world the century after that/' 109 During those two centuries Burkean 
conservatism, Enlightenment liberalism, and romantic nationalism played off 
one another in shifting alliances (and sometimes became strange bedfellows). 

The Congress of Vienna in 1815, when statesmen from the great powers 
engineered a system of international relations that would last a century, was 
a triumph of Burkean conservatism, aiming for stability above all else. None- 
theless, Howard observes, its architects "were as much the heirs of the Enlight- 
enment as had been the French revolutionary leaders. They believed neither 
in the divine right of kings nor the divine authority of the church; but since 
church and king were necessary tools in the restoration and maintenance of 
the domestic order that the revolution had so rudely disturbed, their author- 
ity had everywhere to be restored and upheld." 110 More important, "they no 
longer accepted war between major states as an ineluctable element in the 
international system. The events of the past twenty-five years had shown that 
it was too dangerous." The great powers took on the responsibility of preserv- 
ing peace and order (which they pretty much equated), and their Concert of 
Europe was a forerunner of the League of Nations, the United Nations, and 
the European Union. This international Leviathan deserves much of the credit 
for the long intervals of peace in 19th-century Europe. 

But the stability was enforced by monarchs who ruled over lumpy amal- 
gams of ethnic groups, which began to clamor for a say in how their affairs 
were run. The result was a nationalism that, according to Howard, was "based 
not so much on universal human rights as on the rights of nations to fight their 
way into existence and to defend themselves once they existed." Peace was 
not particularly desirable in the short term; it would come about "only when 
all nations were free. Meanwhile, [nations] claimed the right to use such force 
as was necessary to free themselves, by fighting precisely the wars of national 
liberation that the Vienna system had been set up to prevent." 111 

Nationalist sentiments soon intermixed with every other political move- 
ment. Once nation-states emerged, they became the new establishment, which 
the conservatives strove to conserve. As monarchs became icons of their 
nations, conservatism and nationalism gradually merged. 112 And among many 
intellectuals, romantic nationalism became entwined with the Hegelian doc- 


trine that history was an inexorable dialectic of progress. As Luard summa- 
rized the doctrine, "All history represents the working out of some divine 
plan; war is the way that sovereign states, through which that plan manifested 
itself, must resolve their differences, leading to the emergence of superior 
states (such as the Prussian state), representing the fulfillment of the divine 
purpose." 113 Eventually the doctrine spawned the messianic, militant, roman- 
tic nationalist movements of fascism and Nazism. A similar construction of 
history as an unstoppable dialectic of violent liberation, but with classes sub- 
stituted for nations, became the foundation of 20th-century communism.” 4 

One might think that the liberal heirs of the British, American, and Kantian 
Enlightenment would have been opposed to the increasingly militant nation- 
alism. But they found themselves in a pickle: they could hardly defend auto- 
cratic monarchies and empires. So liberalism signed on to nationalism in the 
guise of "self-determination of peoples," which has a vaguely democratic 
aroma. Unfortunately, the whiff of humanism emanating from that phrase 
depended on a fatal synecdoche. The term "nation" or "people" came to stand 
for the individual men, women, and children who made up that nation, and 
then the political leaders came to stand for the nation. A ruler, a flag, an army, 
a territory, a language, came to be cognitively equated with millions of flesh- 
and-blood individuals. The liberal doctrine of self-determination of peoples 
was enshrined by Woodrow Wilson in a 1916 speech and became the basis 
for the world order after World War I. One of the people who immediately saw 
the inherent contradiction in the "self-determination of peoples" was Wilson's 
own secretary of state, Robert Lansing, who wrote in his diary: 

The phrase is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can 
never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end, it is bound 
to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize 
the danger until too late to check those who attempt to put the principle into 
force. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will 
cause! Think of the feelings of the author when he counts the dead who died 
because he uttered a phrase!” 5 

Lansing was wrong about one thing: the cost was not thousands of lives but 
tens of millions. One of the dangers of "self-determination" is that there is really 
no such thing as a "nation" in the sense of an ethnocultural group that coincides 
with a patch of real estate. Unlike features of a landscape like trees and moun- 
tains, people have feet. They move to places where the opportunities are best, 
and they soon invite their friends and relatives to join them. This demographic 
mixing turns the landscape into a fractal, with minorities inside minorities 
inside minorities. A government with sovereignty over a territory which claims 
to embody a "nation" will in fact fail to embody the interests of many of the 
individuals living within that territory, while taking a proprietary interest in 


individuals living in other territories. If utopia is a world in which political 
boundaries coincide with ethnic boundaries, leaders will be tempted to hasten 
it along with campaigns of ethnic cleansing and irredentism. Also, in the 
absence of liberal democracy and a robust commitment to human rights, the 
synecdoche in which a people is equated with its political ruler will turn any 
international confederation (such as the General Assembly of the United 
Nations) into a travesty. Tinpot dictators are welcomed into the family of 
nations and given carte blanche to starve, imprison, and murder their citizens. 

Another development of the 19th century that would undo Europe's long inter- 
val of peace was romantic militarism: the doctrine that war itself was a salu- 
brious activity, quite apart from its strategic goals. Among liberals and 
conservatives alike, the notion took hold that war called forth spiritual qual- 
ities of heroism, self-sacrifice, and manliness and was needed as a cleansing 
and invigorating therapy for the effeminacy and materialism of bourgeois 
society. Nowadays the idea that there could be something inherently admi- 
rable about an enterprise that is designed to kill people and destroy things 
seems barking mad. But in this era, writers gushed about it: 

War almost always enlarges the mind of a people and raises their character. 

— Alexis de Tocqueville 

[War is] life itself. . . . We must eat and be eaten so that the world might live. 

It is only warlike nations which have prospered: a nation dies as soon as it 

— Emile Zola 

The grandeur of war lies in the utter annihilation of puny man in the great 
conception of the State, and it brings out the full magnificence of the sacrifice 
of fellow-countrymen for one another . . . the love, the friendliness, and the 
strength of that mutual sentiment. 

— Heinrich von Treitschke 

When I tell you that war is the foundation of all the arts, I mean also that it 
is the foundation of all the high virtues and faculties of man. 

— John Ruskin 

Wars are terrible, but necessary, for they save the State from social petrifac- 
tion and stagnation. 

— Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel 

[War is] a purging and a liberation. 

— Thomas Mann 

War is necessary for human progress. 
— Igor Stravinsky 116 


Peace, in contrast, was "a dream and not a pleasant one at that," wrote the 
German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke; "without war, the world 
would wallow in materialism." 117 Friedrich Nietzsche agreed: "It is mere illu- 
sion and pretty sentiment to expect much (even anything at all) from mankind 
if it forgets how to make war." According to the British historian J. A. Cramb, 
peace would mean "a world sunk in bovine content ... a nightmare which 
shall be realized only when the ice has crept to the heart of the sum, and the 
stars, left black and trackless, start from their orbits." 118 

Even thinkers who opposed war, such as Kant, Adam Smith, Ralph Waldo 
Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, H. G. Wells, and William James, had nice 
things to say about it. The title of James's 1906 essay "The Moral Equivalent of 
War" referred not to something that was as bad as war but to something that 
would be as good as it. 119 He began, to be sure, by satirizing the military roman- 
tic's view of war: 

Its "horrors" are a cheap price to pay for rescue from the only alternative 
supposed, of a world of clerks and teachers, of co-education and zo-ophily, 
of "consumer's leagues" and "associated charities," of industrialism unlim- 
ited, and feminism unabashed. No scorn, no hardness, no valor any more! 

Fie upon such a cattleyard of a planet! 

But then he conceded that "we must make new energies and hardihoods con- 
tinue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial 
virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, sur- 
render of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock 
upon which states are built." And so he proposed a program of compulsory 
national service in which "our gilded youths [would] be drafted off . . . to get 
the childishness knocked out of them" in coal mines, foundries, fishing ves- 
sels, and construction sites. 

Romantic nationalism and romantic militarism fed off each other, particu- 
larly in Germany, which came late to the party of European states and felt that 
it deserved an empire too. In England and France, romantic militarism ensured 
that the prospect of war was not as terrifying as it should have been. On the 
contrary, Hillaire Belloc wrote, "How I long for the Great War! It will sweep 
Europe like a broom!" 120 Paul Valery felt the same way: "I almost desire a 
monstrous war." 121 Even Sherlock Holmes got into the act; in 19x4 Arthur 
Conan Doyle had him say "It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many 
of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a 
cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has 
cleared." 122 Metaphors proliferated: the sweeping broom, the bracing wind, 


the pruning shears, the cleansing storm, the purifying fire. Shortly before he 
joined the British navy, the poet Rupert Brooke wrote: 

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour. 

And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping. 

With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power. 

To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping. 

"Of course, the swimmers weren't leaping into clean water but wading into 
blood." So commented the critic Adam Gopnik in a 2004 review of seven new 
books that were still, almost a century later, trying to figure out exactly how 
World War I happened. 121 The carnage was stupefying — 8.5 million deaths in 
combat, and perhaps 15 million deaths overall, in just four years. 124 Romantic 
militarism by itself cannot explain the orgy of slaughter. Writers had been 
glorifying war at least the since the 18th century, but the post-Napoleonic 19th 
had had two unprecedented stretches without a great power war. The war 
was a perfect storm of destructive currents, brought suddenly together by the 
iron dice of Mars: an ideological background of militarism and nationalism, 
a sudden contest of honor that threatened the credibility of each of the great 
powers, a Hobbesian trap that frightened leaders into attacking before they 
were attacked first, an overconfidence that deluded each of them into thinking 
that victory would come swiftly, military machines that could deliver massive 
quantities of men to a front that could mow them down as quickly as they 
arrived, and a game of attrition that locked the two sides into sinking expo- 
nentially greater costs into a ruinous situation — all set off by a Serbian nation- 
alist who had a lucky day. 


The Age of Ideology that began in 1917 was an era in which the course of war 
was determined by the inevitabilist belief systems of the 19th-century counter- 
Enlightenment. A romantic, militarized nationalism inspired the expansion- 
ist programs of Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, and with an additional dose 
of racialist pseudoscience, Nazi Germany. The leadership of each of these 
countries railed against the decadent individualism and universalism of the 
modern liberal West, and each was driven by the conviction that it was des- 
tined to rule over a natural domain: the Mediterranean, the Pacific rim, and 
the European continent, respectively. 125 World War II began with invasions 
that were intended to move this destiny along. At the same time a romantic, 
militarized communism inspired the expansionist programs of the Soviet 
Union and China, who wanted to give a helping hand to the dialectical process 
by which the proletariat or peasantry would vanquish the bourgeoisie and 
establish a dictatorship in country after country. The Cold War was the 


product of the determination of the United States to contain this movement 
at something close to its boundaries at the end of World War II. 126 

But this narrative leaves out a major plot that perhaps had the most lasting 
impact on the 20th century. Mueller, Howard, Payne, and other political his- 
torians remind us that the 19th century was host to yet another movement: a 
continuation of the Enlightenment critique of war. 127 Unlike the strain of lib- 
eralism that developed a soft spot for nationalism, this one kept its eye on the 
individual human being as the entity whose interests are paramount. And it 
invoked the Kantian principles of democracy, commerce, universal citizenship, 
and international law as practical means of implementing peace. 

The brain trust of the 19th- and early-20th-century antiwar movement 
included Quakers such as John Bright, abolitionists such as William Lloyd 
Garrison, advocates of the theory of gentle commerce such as John Stuart Mill 
and Richard Cobden, pacifist writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Mark 
Twain, and George Bernard Shaw, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, indus- 
trialists such as Andrew Carnegie and Alfred Nobel (of Peace Prize fame), 
many feminists, and the occasional socialist (motto: “A bayonet is a weapon 
with a worker at each end"). Some of these moral entrepreneurs created new 
institutions that were designed to preempt or constrain war, such as a court 
of international arbitration in The Hague and a series of Geneva Conventions 
on the conduct of war. 

Peace first became a popular sensation with the publication of two bestsell- 
ers. In 1889 the Austrian novelist Bertha von Suttner published a work of fic- 
tion called Die Waffen nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!), a first-person account 
of the gruesomeness of war. And in 1909 the British journalist Norman Angell 
published a pamphlet called Europe's Optical Illusion , later expanded as The 
Great Illusion, which argued that war was economically futile. Plunder may 
have been profitable in primitive economies, when wealth lay in finite resources 
like gold or land or in the handiwork of self-sufficient craftsmen. But in a world 
in which wealth grows out of exchange, credit, and a division of labor, conquest 
cannot make a conqueror richer. Minerals don't just jump out of the ground, 
nor does grain harvest itself, so the conqueror would still have to pay the min- 
ers to mine and the farmers to farm. In fact, he would make himself poorer, 
since the conquest would cost money and lives and would damage the net- 
works of trust and cooperation that allow everyone to enjoy gains in trade. 
Germany would have nothing to gain by conquering Canada any more than 
Manitoba would have something to gain by conquering Saskatchewan. 

Lor all its literary popularity, the antiwar movement seemed too idealistic 
at the time to be taken seriously by the political mainstream. Suttner was called 
"a gentle perfume of absurdity," and her German Peace Society "a comical 
sewing bee composed of sentimental aunts of both sexes." Angell's friends 
told him to "avoid that stuff or you'll be classed with cranks and faddists, with 
devotees of Higher Thought who go about in sandals and long beards, and 


live on nuts." 128 H. G. Wells wrote that Shaw was "an elderly adolescent still 
at play. . . . All through the war we shall have this Shavian accompaniment 
going on, like an idiot child screaming in a hospital." 129 And though Angell 
had never claimed that war was obsolete — he argued only that it served no 
economic purpose, and was terrified that glory-drunk leaders would blunder 
into it anyway — that was how he was interpreted. 130 After World War I he 
became a laughingstock, and to this day he remains a symbol for naive opti- 
mism about the impending end of war. While I was writing this book, more 
than one concerned colleague took me aside to educate me about Norman 

But according to Mueller, Angell deserves the last laugh. World War I put an 
end not just to romantic militarism in the Western mainstream but to the idea 
that war was in any way desirable or inevitable. "The First World War," notes 
Luard, "transformed traditional attitudes toward war. For the first time there 
was an almost universal sense that the deliberate launching of a war could 
now no longer be justified." 131 It was not just that Europe was reeling from the 
loss of lives and resources. As Mueller notes, there had been comparably 
destructive wars in European history before, and in many cases countries 
dusted themselves off and, as if having learned nothing, promptly jumped 
into a new one. Recall that the statistics of deadly quarrels show no signature 
of war-weariness. Mueller argues that the crucial difference this time was that 
an articulate antiwar movement had been lurking in the background and could 
now say "I told you so." 

The change could be seen both in the political leadership and in the culture 
at large. When the destructiveness of the Great War became apparent, it was 
reframed as "the war to end all wars," and once it was over, world leaders tried 
to legislate the hope into reality by formally renouncing war and setting up 
a League of Nations to prevent it. However pathetic these measures may seem 
in hindsight, at the time they were a radical break from centuries in which 
war had been regarded as glorious, heroic, honorable, or in the famous words 
of the military theorist Karl von Clausewitz, "merely the continuation of pol- 
icy by other means." 

World War I has also been called the first "literary war." By the late 1920s, 
a genre of bitter reflections was making the tragedy and futility of the war 
common knowledge. Among the great works of the era are the poems and 
memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Wilfred Owen, the bestsell- 
ing novel and popular film All Quiet on the Western Front, T. S. Eliot's poem 
"The Hollow Men," Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms, R. C. Sherriff's 
play Journey's End, King Vidor's film The Big Parade, and Jean Renoir's film 
Grand Illusion — the title adapted from Angell's pamphlet. Like other human- 
izing works of art, these stories created an illusion of first-person immediacy, 
encouraging their audiences to empathize with the suffering of others. In an 


unforgettable scene from All Quiet on the Western Front, a young German sol- 
dier examines the body of a Frenchman he has just killed: 

No doubt his wife still thinks of him; she does not know what happened. 

He looks as if he would have often written to her — she will still be getting 
mail from him — Tomorrow, in a week's time — perhaps even a stray letter a 
month hence. She will read it, and in it he will be speaking to her. . . . 

I speak to him and say to him: ". . . Forgive me, comrade. . . . Why do they 
never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as 
anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying 
and the same agony?" . . . 

"I will write to your wife," I say hastily to the dead man. ... "I will tell 
her everything I have told you, she shall not suffer, I will help her, and your 
parents too, and your child — " Irresolutely I take the wallet in my hand. It 
slips out of my hand and falls open. . . . There are portraits of a woman and 
a little girl, small amateur photographs taken against an ivy-clad wall. Along 
with them are letters. 132 

Another soldier asks how wars get started and is told, "Mostly by one coun- 
try badly offending another." The soldier replies, "A country? I don't follow. A 
mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, 
or a field of wheat." 133 The upshot of this literature, Mueller notes, was that war 
was no longer seen as glorious, heroic, holy, thrilling, manly, or cleansing. It was 
now immoral, repulsive, uncivilized, futile, stupid, wasteful, and cruel. 

And perhaps just as important, absurd. The immediate cause of World 
War I had been a showdown over honor. The leaders of Austria-Hungary had 
issued a humiliating ultimatum to Serbia demanding that it apologize for the 
assassination of the archduke and crack down on domestic nationalist move- 
ments to their satisfaction. Russia took offense on behalf of its fellow Slavs, Ger- 
many took offense at Russia's offense on behalf of its fellow German speakers, 
and as Britain and France joined in, a contest of face, humiliation, shame, stature, 
and credibility escalated out of control. A fear of being "reduced to a second-rate 
power" sent them hurtling toward each other in a dreadful game of chicken. 

Contests of honor, of course, had been setting off wars in Europe through- 
out its bloody history. But honor, as Falstaff noted, is just a word — a social 
construction, we might say today — and "detraction will not suffer it." Detrac- 
tion there soon was. Perhaps the best antiwar film of all time is the Marx 
Brothers' Duck Soup (1933). Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, the newly appointed 
leader of Freedonia, and is asked to make peace with the ambassador of neigh- 
boring Sylvania: 

I'd be unworthy of the high trust that's been placed in me if I didn't do every- 
thing within my power to keep our beloved Freedonia at peace with the 


world. I'd be only too happy to meet Ambassador Trentino and offer him on 
behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure he 
will accept this gesture in the spirit in which it is offered. 

But suppose he doesn't. A fine thing that'll be. I hold out my hand and 
he refuses to accept it. That'll add a lot to my prestige, won't it? Me, the head 
of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador. Who does he think he is 
that he can come here and make a sap out of me in front of all my people? 
Think of it. I hold out my hand. And that hyena refuses to accept it. Why, 
the cheap, four-flushing swine! He'll never get away with it, I tell you! [The 
ambassador enters.] So, you refuse to shake hands with me, eh? [He slaps 
the ambassador.] 

Ambassador: Mrs. Teasdale, this is the last straw! There's no turning back 
now! This means war! 

Whereupon an outlandish production number breaks out in which the Marx 
Brothers play xylophone on the pickelhauben of the assembled soldiers and 
then dodge bullets and bombs while their uniforms keep changing, from Civil 
War soldier to Boy Scout to British palace guard to frontiersman with coonskin 
cap. War has been likened to dueling, and recall that dueling was eventually 
laughed into extinction. War was now undergoing a similar deflation, perhaps 
fulfilling Oscar Wilde's prophecy that "as long as war is regarded as wicked, 
it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will 
cease to be popular." 

The butt of the joke was different in the other classic war satire of the era, 
Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940). It was no longer the hotheaded 
leaders of generic Ruritanian countries that were the target, since by now vir- 
tually everyone was allergic to a military culture of honor. Instead the buffoons 
were thinly disguised contemporary dictators who anachronistically embraced 
that ideal. In one memorable scene, the Hitler and Mussolini characters confer 
in a barbershop and each tries to dominate the other by raising his chair until 
both are bumping their heads against the ceiling. 

By the 1930s, according to Mueller, Europe's war aversion was prevalent 
even among the German populace and its military leadership. 1 ^ Though 
resentment of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles was high, few were willing 
to start a war of conquest to rectify them. Mueller ran through the set of Ger- 
man leaders who had any chance of becoming chancellor and argued that no 
one but Hitler showed any desire to subjugate Europe. Even a coup by the 
German military, according to the historian Henry Turner, would not have 
led to World War II. 135 Hitler exploited the world's war-weariness, repeatedly 
professing his love of peace and knowing that no one was willing to stop him 
while he was still stoppable. Mueller reviews biographies of Hitler to defend 
the idea, also held by many historians, that one man was mostly responsible 
for the world's greatest cataclysm: 


After seizing control of the country in 1933, [Hitler] moved quickly and 
decisively to persuade, browbeat, dominate, outmaneuver, downgrade, and 
in many instances, murder opponents or would-be opponents. He possessed 
enormous energy and stamina, exceptional persuasive powers, an excellent 
memory, strong powers of concentration, an overwhelming craving for 
power, a fanatical belief in his mission, a monumental self-confidence, a 
unique daring, a spectacular facility for lying, a mesmerizing oratory style, 
and an ability to be utterly ruthless to anyone who got in his way or 
attempted to divert him from his intended course of action. . . . 

Hitler needed the chaos and discontent to work with — although he cre- 
ated much of it, too. And surely he needed assistance — colleagues who were 
worshipfully subservient; a superb army that could be manipulated and 
whipped into action; a population capable of being mesmerized and led to 
slaughter; foreign opponents who were confused, disorganized, gullible, 
myopic, and faint-hearted; neighbors who would rather be prey than fight— 
although he created much of this as well. Hitler took the conditions of 
the world as he found them and then shaped and manipulated them to his 
own ends. 136 

Fifty-five million deaths later (including at least 12 million who died in 
Japan's own atavistic campaign to dominate East Asia), the world was once 
again in a position to give peace a chance. 


I have spent a lot of this chapter on the statistics of war. But now we are ready 
for the most interesting statistic since 1945: zero. Zero is the number that 
applies to an astonishing collection of categories of war during the two-thirds 
of a century that has elapsed since the end of the deadliest war of all time. I'll 
begin with the most momentous. 

• Zero is the number of times that nuclear weapons have been used in con- 
flict. Five great powers possess them, and all of them have waged wars. Yet no 
nuclear device has been set off in anger. It's not just that the great powers 
avoided the mutual suicide of an all-out nuclear war. They also avoided using 
the smaller, "tactical" nuclear weapons, many of them comparable to conven- 
tional explosives, on the battlefield or in the bombing of enemy facilities. And 
the United States refrained from using its nuclear arsenal in the late 1940s when 
it held a nuclear monopoly and did not have to worry about mutually assured 
destruction. I've been quantifying violence throughout this book using propor- 
tions. If one were to calculate the amount of destruction that nations have actu- 
ally perpetrated as a proportion of how much they could perpetrate, given the 
destructive capacity available to them, the postwar decades would be many 
orders of magnitudes more peaceable than any time in history. 


None of this was a foregone conclusion. Until the sudden end of the Cold 
War, many experts (including Albert Einstein, C. P. Snow, Herman Kahn, Carl 
Sagan, and Jonathan Schell) wrote that thermonuclear doomsday was likely, if 
not inevitable. 137 The eminent international studies scholar Hans Morgenthau, 
for example, wrote in 1979, "The world is moving ineluctably towards a third 
world war — a strategic nuclear war. I do not believe that anything can be done 
to prevent it." 138 The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, according to its Web site, 
aims to "inform the public and influence policy through in-depth analyses, 
op-eds, and reports on nuclear weapons." Since 1947 it has published the famous 
Doomsday Clock, a measure of "how close humanity is to catastrophic 
destruction — the figurative midnight." The clock was unveiled with its minute 
hand pointing at 7 minutes to midnight, and over the next sixty years it was 
moved back and forth a number of times between 2 minutes to midnight (in 
1953) and 17 minutes to midnight (in 1991). In 2007 the Bulletin apparently decided 
that a clock with a minute hand that moved two minutes in sixty years was due 
for an adjustment. But rather than tuning the mechanism, they redefined mid- 
night. Doomsday now consists of "damage to ecosystems, flooding, destructive 
storms, increased drought, and polar ice melt." This is a kind of progress. 

• Zero is the number of times that the two Cold War superpowers fought 
each other on the battlefield. To be sure, they occasionally fought each other's 
smaller allies and stoked proxy wars among their client states. But when either 
the United States or the Soviet Union sent troops to a contested region (Berlin, 
Hungary, Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan), the other stayed out of its 
way. 139 The distinction matters a great deal because as we have seen, one big 
war can kill vastly more people than many small wars. In the past, when an 
enemy of a great power invaded a neutral country, the great power would 
express its displeasure on the battlefield. In 1979, when the Soviet Union 
invaded Afghanistan, the United States expressed its displeasure by with- 
drawing its team from the Moscow Summer Olympics. The Cold War, to every- 
one's surprise, ended without a shot in the late 1980s shortly after Mikhail 
Gorbachev ascended to power. It was followed by the peaceful tear-down of 
the Berlin Wall and then by the mostly peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. 

• Zero is the number of times that any of the great powers have fought each 
other since 1953 (or perhaps even 1945, since many political scientists don't 
admit China to the club of great powers until after the Korean War). The war- 
free interval since 1953 handily breaks the previous two records from the 19th 
century of 38 and 44 years. In fact, as of May 15, 1984, the major powers of the 
world had remained at peace with one another for the longest stretch of time 
since the Roman Empire. 140 Not since the 2nd century BCE, when Teutonic 
tribes challenged the Romans, has a comparable interval passed without an 
army crossing the Rhine. 141 

• Zero is the number of interstate wars that have been fought between coun- 
tries in Western Europe since the end of World War II. 142 It is also the number of 


interstate wars that have been fought in Europe as a whole since 1956, when the 
Soviet Union briefly invaded Hungary. 143 Keep in mind that up until that point 
European states had started around two new armed conflicts a year since 1400. 

• Zero is the number of interstate wars that have been fought since 1945 
between major developed countries (the forty-four with the highest per capita 
income) anywhere in the world (again, with the exception of the 1956 Hungar- 
ian invasion). 144 Today we take it for granted that war is something that hap- 
pens in smaller, poorer, and more backward countries. But the two world wars, 
together with the many hyphenated European wars from centuries past 
(Franco-Prussian, Austro-Prussian, Russo-Swedish, British-Spanish, Anglo- 
Dutch) remind us that this was not always the way things worked. 

• Zero is the number of developed countries that have expanded their ter- 
ritory since the late 1940s bv conquering another country. No more Poland 
getting wiped off the map, or Britain adding India to its empire, or Austria 
helping itself to the odd Balkan nation. Zero is also the number of times that 
any country has conquered even parts of some other country since 1975, and 
it is not far from the number of permanent conquests since 1948 (a develop- 
ment we'll soon examine more closely). 145 In fact the process of great power 
aggrandizement went into reverse. In what has been called "the greatest trans- 
fer of power in world history," European countries surrendered vast swaths 
of territory as they closed down their empires and granted independence to 
colonies, sometimes peacefully, sometimes because they had lost the will to 
prevail in colonial wars. 146 As we will see in the next chapter, two entire cat- 
egories of war — the imperial war to acquire colonies, and the colonial war to 
keep them — no longer exist. 147 

• Zero is the number of internationally recognized states since World 
War II that have gone out of existence through conquest. 148 (South Vietnam 
may be the exception, depending on whether its unification with North Viet- 
nam in 1975 is counted as a conquest or as the end of an internationalized civil 
war.) During the first half of the 20th century, by comparison, twenty-two 
states were occupied or absorbed, at a time when the world had far fewer states 
to begin with. 149 Though scores of nations have gained independence since 
1945, and several have broken apart, most of the lines on a world map of 1950 
are still present on a world map in 2010. This too is an extraordinary develop- 
ment in a world in which rulers used to treat imperial expansion as part of 
their job description. 

The point of this chapter is that these zeroes — the Long Peace — are a result of 
one of those psychological retunings that take place now and again over the 
course of history and cause violence to decline. In this case it is a change within 
the mainstream of the developed world (and increasingly, the rest of the world) 
in the shared cognitive categorization of war. For most of human history, 
influential people who craved power, prestige, or vengeance could count on 


their political network to ratify those cravings and to turn off their sympathies 
for the victims of an effort to satisfy them. They believed, in other words, in 
the legitimacy of war. Though the psychological components of war have not 
gone away — dominance, vengeance, callousness, tribalism, groupthink, self- 
deception — since the late 1940s they have been disaggregated in Europe and 
other developed countries in a way that has driven down the frequency of war. 

Some people downplay these stunning developments by pointing out that 
wars still take place in the developing world, so perhaps violence has only 
been displaced, not reduced. In the following chapter we will examine armed 
conflict in the rest of the world, but for now it's worth noting that the objection 
makes little sense. There is no Law of Conservation of Violence, no hydraulic 
system in which a compression of violence in one part of the world forces it to 
bulge out somewhere else. Tribal, civil, private, slave-raiding, imperial, and 
colonial wars have inflamed the territories of the developing world for mil- 
lennia. A world in which war continues in some of the poorer countries is still 
better than a world in which it takes place in both the rich and the poor coun- 
tries, especially given the incalculably greater damage that rich, powerful 
countries can wreak. 

A long peace, to be sure, is not a perpetual peace. No one with a statistical 
appreciation of history could possibly say that a war between great powers, 
developed countries, or European states will never happen again. But prob- 
abilities can change over spans of time that matter to us. The house odds on 
the iron dice can decline; the power-law line can sink or tilt. And in much of 
the world, that appears to have happened. 

The same statistical consciousness, though, alerts us to alternative possi- 
bilities. Perhaps the odds haven't changed at all, and we're overinterpreting a 
random run of peaceful years in the same way that we are liable to overinter- 
pret a random cluster of wars or atrocities. Perhaps the pressure for war has 
been building and the system will blow at any moment. 

But probably not. The statistics of deadly quarrels show that war is not a 
pendulum, a pressure cooker, or a hurtling mass, but a memoryless game of 
dice, perhaps one with changing odds. And the history of many nations 
affirms that a peace among them can last indefinitely. As Mueller puts it, if 
war fever were cyclical, "one would expect the Swiss, Danes, Swedes, Dutch, 
and Spaniards to be positively waring for a fight by now." 150 Nor are Canadians 
and Americans losing sleep about an overdue invasion across the world's 
longest undefended border. 

What about the possibility of a run of good luck? Also unlikely. The postwar 
years are by far the longest period of peace among great powers since they came 
into being five hundred years ago. 151 The stretch of peace among European states 
is also the longest in its bellicose history. Just about any statistical test can con- 
firm that the zeroes and near zeroes of the Long Peace are extremely improb- 
able, given the rates of war in the preceding centuries. Taking the frequency of 


wars between great powers from 1495 to 1945 as a baseline, the chance that there 
would be a sixty-five-year stretch with only a single great power war (the mar- 
ginal case of the Korean War) is one in a thousand. 152 Even if we take 1815 as our 
starting point, which biases the test against us by letting the peaceful post- 
Napoleonic 19th century dominate the base rate, we find that the probability 
that the postwar era would have at most four wars involving a great power is 
less than 0.004, ar *d the probability that it would have at most one war between 
European states (the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956) is 0.0008. 153 

The calculation of probabilities, to be sure, critically depends on how one 
defines the events. Odds are very different when you estimate them in full 
knowledge of what happened (a post hoc comparison, also known as "data 
snooping") and when you lay down your prediction beforehand (a planned 
or a priori comparison). Recall that the chance that two people in a room of 
fifty-seven will share a birthday is ninety-nine out of a hundred. In that case 
we are specifying the exact day only after we identify the pair of people. The 
chance that someone will share my birthday is less than one in seven; in that 
case we specify the day beforehand. A stock scammer can exploit the distinc- 
tion by sending out newsletters with every possible prediction about the tra- 
jectory of the market. Several months later the fraction of recipients that got 
the lucky matching run will think he is a genius. A skeptic of the Long Peace 
could claim that anyone making a big deal of a long run of nonwars at the end 
of that very run is just as guilty of data snooping. 

But in fact there is a paper trail of scholars who, more than two decades 
ago, noticed that the war-free years were piling up and attributed it to a new 
mindset that they expected to last. Today we can say that their a priori predic- 
tions have been confirmed. The story can be told in titles and dates: Werner 
Levi's The Coining End of War (1981), John Gaddis's "The Long Peace: Elements 
of Stability in the Postwar International System" (1986), Kalevi Holsti's "The 
Horsemen of the Apocalypse: At the Gate, Detoured, or Retreating?" (1986), 
Evan Luard's The Blunted Sword: The Erosion of Military Power in Modern World 
Politics (1988), John Mueller's Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major 
War (1989), Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?" (1989), James Lee Ray's 
"The Abolition of Slavery and the End of International War" (1989), and Carl 
Kaysen's "Is War Obsolete?" (1990). 154 In 1988 the political scientist Robert Jer- 
vis captured the phenomenon they were all noticing: 

The most striking characteristic of the postwar period is just that — it can be 
called "postwar" because the major powers have not fought each other since 
1945. Such a lengthy period of peace among the most powerful states is 
unprecedented. 155 

These scholars were confident that they were not being fooled by a lucky 
run but were putting their finger on an underlying shift that supported 


predictions about the future. In early 1990, Kaysen added a last-minute post- 
script to his review of Mueller's 1989 book in which he wrote: 

It is clear that a profound transformation of the international structure in 
Europe — and the whole world — is underway. In the past, such changes have 
regularly been consummated by war. The argument presented in this essay 
supports the prediction that this time the changes can take place without 
war (although not necessarily without domestic violence in the states con- 
cerned). So far— mid-January — so good. The author and his readers will be 
eagerly and anxiously testing the prediction each day. 156 

Precocious assessments of the obsolescence of interstate war are especially 
poignant when they come from military historians. These are the scholars 
who have spent their lives immersed in the annals of warfare and should be 
most jaded about the possibility that this time it's different. In his magnum 
opus A History of Warfare, John Keegan (the military historian who is so habit- 
ually called "distinguished" that one could be forgiven for thinking it is part 
of his name) wrote in 1993: 

War, it seems to me, after a lifetime of reading about the subject, mingling 
with men of war, visiting the sites of war and observing its effects, may well 
be ceasing to commend itself to human beings as a desirable or productive, 
let alone rational, means of reconciling their discontents. 157 

The equally distinguished Michael Howard had already written, in 1991: 

[It has become] quite possible that war in the sense of major, organized 
armed conflict between highly developed societies may not recur, and 
that a stable framework for international order will become firmly estab- 
lished. 158 

And the no-less-distinguished Evan Luard, our guide to six centuries of war, 
had written still earlier, in 1986: 

Most startling of all has been the change that has come about in Europe, 
where there has been a virtual cessation of international warfare. . . . Given 
the scale and frequency of war during the preceding centuries in Europe, 
this is a change of spectacular proportions: perhaps the single most striking 
discontinuity that the history of warfare has anywhere provided. 159 

More than two decades later, none of them would have a reason to change 
his assessment. In his 2006 book War in Human Civilization, a military history 


that is more sweeping than its predecessors and salted with the Hobbesian 
realism of evolutionary psychology, Azar Gat wrote: 

Among affluent liberal democracies ... a true state of peace appears to have 
developed, based on genuine mutual confidence that war between them is 
practically eliminated even as an option. Nothing like this had ever existed 
in history. 160 


The italics in Gat's "true state of peace" highlight not just the datum that the 
number of wars between developed states happens to be zero but a change in 
the countries' mindsets. The ways that developed countries conceptualize and 
prepare for war have undergone sweeping changes. 

A major feeder of the increasing deadliness of war since 1500 (see figure 
5-16) has been conscription, the stocking of national armies with a renewable 
supply of bodies. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, most European countries 
had some form of a draft. Conscientious objection was barely a concept, and 
recruitment methods were far less polite than the telegram dreaded by young 
American men in the 1960s that began: "Greetings." The idiom pressed into 
service comes from the institution of press gangs, groups of goons paid by the 
government to snatch men from the streets and force them into the army or 
navy. (The Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War was 
almost entirely rounded up by press gangs.) 161 Compulsory military service 
could consume a substantial portion of a man's life — as much as twenty-five 
years for a serf in 19th-century Russia. 

Military conscription represents the application of force squared: people 
are coerced into servitude, and the servitude exposes them to high odds of 
being maimed or killed. Other than at times of existential threat, the extent 
of conscription is a barometer of a country's willingness to sanction the use 
of force. In the decades after World War II, the world saw a steady reduction 
in the length of compulsory military service. The United States, Canada, and 
most European countries have eliminated conscription outright, and in the 
others it functions more as a citizenship-building exercise than as a training 
ground for warriors. 162 Payne has compiled statistics on the length of military 
conscription between 1970 and 2000 in forty-eight long-established nations, 
which I have updated for 2010 in figure 5-19. They show that conscription was 
in decline even before the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. Only 19 percent 
of these countries did without conscription in 1970. The proportion rose to 
35 percent in 2000 and to 50 percent in 2010, and it will soon exceed 50 percent 
because at least two other countries (Poland and Serbia) plan to abolish the 
draft in the early 2010s. 163 


FIGURE 5-19. Length of military conscription, 48 major long-established nations, 1970-2010 

Sources: Graph for 1970-2000 from Payne, 2004, p. 74, based on data from the International Institute 
for Strategic Studies (London), The Military Balance, various editions. Data for 2010 from the 2010 
edition of The Military Balance (International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010), supplemented 
when incomplete from The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency, 2010. 

Another indicator of war-friendliness is the size of a nation's military forces 
as a proportion of its population, whether enlisted by conscription or by tele- 
vision ads promising volunteers that they can be all that they can be. Payne 
has shown that the proportion of the population that a nation puts in uniform 
is the best indicator of its ideological embrace of militarism.’ 64 When the United 
States demobilized after World War II, it took on a new enemy in the Cold War 
and never shrank its military back to prewar levels. But figure 5-20 shows that 
the trend since the mid-1950s has been sharply downward. Europe's disinvest- 
ment of human capital in the military sector began even earlier. 

Other large countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, and China, also 
shrank their armed forces during this half-century. After the Cold War ended, 
the trend went global: from a peak of more than 9 military personnel per 100,000 
people in 1988, the average across long-established countries plunged to less 
than 5.5 in 2001. 165 Some of these savings have come from outsourcing noncom- 
bat functions like laundry and food services to private contractors, and in the 
wealthiest countries, from replacing front-line military personnel with robots 
and drones. But the age of robotic warfare is far in the future, and recent events 
have shown that the number of available boots on the ground is still a major 
constraint on the projection of military force. For that matter, the roboticizing 
of the military is itself a manifestation of the trend we are exploring. Countries 


FIGURE 5-20. Military personnel, United States and Europe, 1950-2000 
Sources: Correlates of War National Material Capabilities Dataset (1816-2001); http://www.corre, Sarkees, 2000. Unweighted averages, every five years. "Europe" includes Belgium, 
Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, 
Poland, Romania, Russia/USSR, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, U.K., Yugoslavia. 

have developed these technologies at fantastic expense because the lives of 
their citizens (and, as we shall see, of foreign citizens) have become dearer. 

Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace 
must be constructed. 

— UNESCO motto 

Another indication that the Long Peace is no accident is a set of sanity checks 
which confirm that the mentality of leaders and populaces has changed. Each 
component of the war-friendly mindset — nationalism, territorial ambition, an 
international culture of honor, popular acceptance of war, and indifference to 
its human costs — went out of fashion in developed countries in the second 
half of the 20th century. 

The first signal event was the 1948 endorsement of the Universal Declara- 
tion of Human Rights by forty-eight countries. The declaration begins with 
these articles: 

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. 
They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one 
another in a spirit of brotherhood. 


Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in 
this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, 
language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, prop- 
erty, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the 
basis of the political, jurisdictional or institutional status of the country or 
territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non- 
self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty. 

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person. 

It's tempting to dismiss this manifesto as feel-good verbiage. But in endors- 
ing the Enlightenment ideal that the ultimate value in the political realm is 
the individual human being, the signatories were repudiating a doctrine that 
had reigned for more than a century, namely that the ultimate value was the 
nation, people, culture, Volk, class, or other collectivity (to say nothing of 
the doctrine of earlier centuries that the ultimate value was the monarch, and 
the people were his or her chattel). The need for an assertion of universal 
human rights had become evident during the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46, 
when some lawyers had argued that Nazis could be prosecuted only for the 
portion of the genocides they committed in occupied countries like Poland. 
What they did on their own territory, according to the earlier way of thinking, 
was none of anyone else's business. 

Another sign that the declaration was more than hot air was that the great 
powers were nervous about signing it. Britain was worried about its colonies, 
the United States about its Negroes, and the Soviet Union about its puppet 
states. 166 But after Eleanor Roosevelt shepherded the declaration through 
eighty-three meetings, it passed without opposition (though pointedly, with 
eight abstentions from the Soviet bloc). 

The era's repudiation of counter-Enlightenment ideology was made explicit 
forty-five years later by Vaclav Havel, the playwright who became president 
of Czechoslovakia after the nonviolent Velvet Revolution had overthrown the 
communist government. Havel wrote, "The greatness of the idea of European 
integration on democratic foundations is its capacity to overcome the old Her- 
derian idea of the nation state as the highest expression of national life." 167 

One paradoxical contributor to the Long Peace was the freezing of national 
borders. The United Nations initiated a norm that existing states and their 
borders were sacrosanct. By demonizing any attempt to change them by force 
as "aggression," the new understanding took territorial expansion off the table 
as a legitimate move in the game of international relations. The borders may 
have made little sense, the governments within them may not have deserved 
to govern, but rationalizing the borders by violence was no longer a live option 
in the minds of statesmen. The grandfathering of boundaries has been, on 
average, a pacifying development because, as the political scientist John 


Vasquez has noted, "of all the issues over which wars could logically be fought, 
territorial issues seem to be the one most often associated with wars. Few 
interstate wars are fought without any territorial issue being involved in one 
way or another." 168 

The political scientist Mark Zacher has quantified the change. 169 Since 1951 
there have been only ten invasions that resulted in a major change in national 
boundaries, all before 1975. Many of them planted flags in sparsely populated 
hinterlands and islands, and some carved out new political entities (such as 
Bangladesh) rather than expanding the territory of the conqueror. Ten may 
sound like a lot, but as figure 5-21 shows, it represents a precipitous drop from 
the preceding three centuries. 

Israel is an exception that proves the rule. The serpentine "green line" where 
the Israeli and Arab armies stopped in 1949 was not particularly acceptable to 
anyone at the time, especially the Arab states. But in the ensuing decades it 
took on an almost mystical status in the international community as Israel's 
one true correct border. The country has acceded to international pressure to 
relinquish most of the territory it has occupied in the various wars since then, 
and within our lifetimes it will probably withdraw from the rest, with some 
minor swaps of land and perhaps a complicated arrangement regarding Jeru- 
salem, where the norm of immovable borders will clash with the norm of 
undivided cities. Most other conquests, such as the Indonesian takeover of 
East Timor, have been reversed as well. The most dramatic recent example 

FIGURE 5-21. Percentage of territorial wars resulting in redistribution ofterritory, 1651-2000 

Source: Data from Zacher, 2001, tables 1 and 2; the data point for each half-century is plotted at its 
midpoint, except for the last half of the 20th century, in which each point represents a quarter-century. 

260 the better angels of our nature 

was in 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait (the only time since 1945 
that one member of the UN has swallowed another one whole), and an aghast 
multinational coalition made short work of pushing him out. 

The psychology behind the sanctity of national boundaries is not so much 
empathy or moral reasoning as norms and taboos (a topic that will be explored 
in chapter 9). Among respectable countries, conquest is no longer a thinkable 
option. A politician in a democracy today who suggested conquering another 
country would be met not with counterarguments but with puzzlement, 
embarrassment, or laughter. 

The territorial-integrity norm, Zacher points out, has ruled out not just 
conquest but other kinds of boundary-tinkering. During decolonization, the 
borders of newly independent states were the lines that some imperial admin- 
istrator had drawn on a map decades before, often bisecting ethnic homelands 
or throwing together enemy tribes. Nonetheless there was no movement to 
get all the new leaders to sit around a table with a blank map and a pencil and 
redraw the borders from scratch. The breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugo- 
slavia also resulted in the dashed lines between internal republics and prov- 
inces turning into solid lines between sovereign states, without any redrafting. 

The sacralization of arbitrary lines on a map may seem illogical, but there 
is a rationale to the respecting of norms, even arbitrary and unjustifiable ones. 
The game theorist Thomas Schelling has noted that when a range of compro- 
mises would leave two negotiators better off than they would be if they walked 
away, any salient cognitive landmark can lure them into an agreement that 
benefits them both.' 70 People bargaining over a price, for example, can "get to 
yes" by splitting the difference between their offers, or by settling on a round 
number, rather than haggling indefinitely over the fairest price. Melville's 
whalers in Moby-Dick acceded to the norm that a fast-fish belongs to the party 
fast to it because they knew it would avoid "the most vexatious and violent 
disputes." Lawyers say that possession is nine tenths of the law, and everyone 
knows that good fences make good neighbors. 

A respect for the territorial-integrity norm ensures that the kind of discus- 
sion that European leaders had with Hitler in the 1930s, when it was considered 
perfectly reasonable that he should swallow Austria and chunks of Czecho- 
slovakia to make the borders of Germany coincide with the distribution of 
ethnic Germans, is no longer thinkable. Indeed, the norm has been corroding 
the ideal of the nation-state and its sister principle of the self-determination 
of peoples, which obsessed national leaders in the late 19th and early 20th 
centuries. The goal of drawing a smooth border through the fractal of inter- 
penetrating ethnic groups is an unsolvable geometry problem, and living with 
existing borders is now considered better than endless attempts to square the 
circle, with its invitations to ethnic cleansing and irredentist conquest. 

The territorial-integrity norm brings with it numerous injustices, as ethnic 
groups may find themselves submerged in political entities that have no 


benevolent interest in their welfare. The point was not lost on Ishmael, who 
mused, "What to that redoubted harpooneer, John Bull, is poor Ireland, but a 
Fast-Fish?" Some of Europe's peaceful borders demarcate countries that were 
conveniently homogenized by the massive ethnic cleansing of World War II and 
its aftermath, when millions of ethnic Germans and Slavs were forcibly uprooted 
from their homes. The developing world is now being held to higher standards, 
and it is likely, as the sociologist Ann Hironaka has argued, that its civil wars 
have been prolonged by the insistence that states always be preserved and bor- 
ders never altered. But on balance, the sacred-border norm appears to have been 
a good bargain for the world. As we shall see in the next chapter, the death toll 
from a large number of small civil wars is lower than that from a few big inter- 
state wars, to say nothing of world wars, consistent with the power-law distri- 
bution of deadly quarrels. And even civil wars have become fewer in number 
and less damaging as the modern state evolves from a repository for the national 
soul to a multiethnic social contract conforming to the principle of human rights. 

Together with nationalism and conquest, another ideal has faded in the post- 
war decades: honor. As Luard understates it, "In general, the value placed on 
human life today is probably higher, and that placed on national prestige (or 
'honor') probably lower, than in earlier times." 171 Nikita Khrushchev, the leader 
of the Soviet Union during the worst years of the Cold War, captured the new 
sensibility when he said, "I'm not some czarist officer who has to kill himself 
if I fart at a masked ball. It's better to back down than to go to war." 172 Many 
national leaders agree, and have backed down or held their fire in response 
to provocations that in previous eras would have incited them to war. 

In 1979 the United States responded to two affronts in quick succession — the 
Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the government-indulged takeover of 
the American embassy in Iran — with little more than an Olympic boycott and 
a nightly televised vigil. As Jimmy Carter said later, "I could have destroyed 
Iran with my weaponry, but I felt in the process it was likely that the hostages' 
lives would be lost, and I didn't want to kill 20,000 Iranians. So I didn't 
attack." 173 Though American hawks were furious at Carter's wimpiness, their 
own hero, Ronald Reagan, responded to a 1983 bombing that killed 241 Amer- 
ican servicemen in Beirut by withdrawing all American forces from the coun- 
try, and he sat tight in 1987 when Iraqi jet fighters killed thirty-seven sailors 
on the USS Stark. The 2004 train bombing in Madrid by an Islamist terrorist 
group, far from whipping the Spanish into an anti-Islamic lather, prompted 
them to vote out the government that had involved them in the Iraq War, an 
involvement many felt had brought the attack upon them. 

The most consequential discounting of honor in the history of the world 
was the resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Though the pursuit of 
national prestige may have precipitated the crisis, once Khrushchev and Ken- 
nedy were in it, they reflected on their mutual need to save face and set that 


up as a problem for the two of them to solve . 174 Kennedy had read Tuchman's 
The Guns of August, a history of World War I, and knew that an international 
game of chicken driven by "personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur" 
could lead to a cataclysm. Robert Kennedy, in a memoir on the crisis, recalled: 

Neither side wanted war over Cuba, we agreed, but it was possible that either 
side could take a step that— for reasons of "security" or "pride" or "face" — 
would require a response by the other side, which, in turn, for the same reasons 
of security, pride, or face, would bring about a counterresponse and eventually 
an escalation into armed conflict. That was what he wanted to avoid . 175 

Khrushchev's wisecrack about the czarist officer shows that he too was cog- 
nizant of the psychology of honor, and he had a similar intuitive sense of game 
theory. During a tense moment in the crisis, he offered Kennedy this analysis: 

You and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have 
tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter this knot 
will become. And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the 
person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will 
have to be cut . 176 

They untied the knot by making mutual concessions — Khrushchev 
removed his missiles from Cuba, Kennedy removed his from Turkey, and 
Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba. Nor was the de-escalation purely a 
stroke of uncanny good luck. Mueller reviewed the history of superpower 
confrontations during the Cold War and concluded that the sequence was 
more like climbing a ladder than stepping onto an escalator. Though several 
times the leaders began a perilous ascent, with each rung they climbed they 
became increasingly acrophobic, and always sought a way to gingerly step 
back down . 177 

And for all the shoe-pounding bluster of the Soviet Union during the Cold 
War, its leadership spared the world another cataclysm when Mikhail Gor- 
bachev allowed the Soviet bloc, and then the Soviet Union itself, to go out of 
existence — what the historian Timothy Garton Ash has called a "breathtaking 
renunciation of the use of force" and a "luminous example of the importance 
of the individual in history." 

This last remark reminds us that historical contingency works both ways. 
There are parallel universes in which the archduke's driver didn't make a 
wrong turn in Sarajevo, or in which a policeman aimed differently during the 
Beer Hall Putsch, and history unfolded with one or two fewer world wars. 
There are other parallel universes in which an American president listened 
to his Joint Chiefs of Staff and invaded Cuba, or in which a Soviet leader 


responded to the breach of the Berlin Wall by calling out the tanks, and his- 
tory unfolded with one or two more. But given the changing odds set by the 
prevailing ideas and norms, it is not surprising that in our universe it 
was the first half of the 20th century that was shaped by a Princip and a Hitler, 
and the second half by a Kennedy, a Khrushchev, and a Gorbachev. 

Yet another historic upheaval in the landscape of 20th-century values was a 
resistance by the populations of democratic nations to their leaders' plans for 
war. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw mass demonstrations to Ban the Bomb, 
whose legacy includes the trident-in-circle peace symbol co-opted by other 
antiwar movements. By the late 1960s the United States was torn apart by 
protests against the Vietnam War. Antiwar convictions were no longer con- 
fined to sentimental aunts of both sexes, and the idealists who went about in 
sandals and beards were no longer cranks but a significant proportion of the 
generation that reached adulthood in the 1960s. Unlike the major artworks 
deploring World War I, which appeared more than a decade after it was over, 
popular art in the 1960s condemned the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam 
War in real time. Antiwar advocacy was woven into prime-time television 
programs (such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and M*A*S*H) and many 
popular films and songs: 

Catch-22 • Fail-Safe • Dr. Strangelove • Hearts and Minds • FTA • How I Won 
the War • Johnny Got His Gun • King of Hearts • M*A*S*H • Oh! What a Lovely 
War • Slaughterhouse-Five 

"Alice's Restaurant" • "Blowin' in the Wind" • "Cruel War" • "Eve of 
Destruction" • "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" • "Give Peace a Chance" • 
"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" • "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" • "If I Had a 
Hammer" • "Imagine" • "It's a Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall" • "Last Night I 
Had the Strangest Dream" • "Machine Gun" • "Masters of War" • "Sky 
Pilot" • "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" • "Turn! Turn! Turn!" • "Universal Soldier" • 
"What's Goin' On?" • "With God on Our Side" • "War (What Is It Good 
For?)" • "Waist-Deep in the Big Muddy" • "Where Have All the Flowers 

As in the 1700s and the 1930s, artists did not just preach about war to make 
it seem immoral but satirized it to make it seem ridiculous. During the 1969 
Woodstock concert. Country Joe and the Fish sang the jaunty "Feel Like I'm 
Fixin' to Die Rag," whose chorus was: 

And it's One, Two, Three, what are we fighting for? 

Don't ask me, I don't give a damn; next stop is Vietnam! 


And it's Five, Six, Seven, open up the Pearly Gates. 

There ain't no time to wonder why; Whoopee! We're all going to die. 

In his 1967 monologue "Alice's Restaurant," Arlo Guthrie told of being 
drafted and sent to an army psychiatrist at the induction center in New York: 

And I went up there, I said, "Shrink, I want to kill. I mean, I wanna, I wanna 
kill. Kill. I wanna, I wanna see, I wanna see blood and gore and guts and 
veins in my teeth. Eat dead burnt bodies. I mean kill, Kill, KILL, KILL." And 
I started jumpin' up and down yelling, "KILL, KILL," and he started jumpin' 
up and down with me and we was both jumpin' up and down yelling, "KILL, 
KILL." And the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, sent me down 
the hall, said, "You're our boy." 

It's easy to dismiss this cultural moment as baby-boomer nostalgia. As Tom 
Lehrer satirized it, they won all the battles, but we had the good songs. But in 
a sense we did win the battles. In the wake of nationwide protests, Lyndon 
Johnson shocked the country by not seeking his party's nomination in the 
1968 presidential election. Though a reaction against the increasingly unruly 
protests helped elect Richard Nixon in 1968, Nixon shifted the country's war 
plans from a military victory to a face-saving withdrawal (though not before 
another twenty thousand Americans and a million Vietnamese had died in 
the fighting). After a 1973 cease-fire, American troops were withdrawn, and 
Congress effectively ended the war by prohibiting additional intervention and 
cutting off funding for the South Vietnamese government. 

The United States was then said to have fallen into a "Vietnam Syndrome" 
in which it shied away from military engagement. By the 1980s it had recovered 
well enough to fight several small wars and to support anticommunist forces 
in several proxy wars, but clearly its military policy would never be the same. 
The phenomenon called "casualty dread," "war aversion," and "the Dover 
Doctrine" (the imperative to minimize flag-draped coffins returning to Dover 
Air Force Base) reminded even the more hawkish presidents that the country 
would not tolerate casualty-intensive military adventures. By the 1990s the 
only politically acceptable American wars were surgical routs achieved with 
remote-control technology. They could no longer be wars of attrition that 
ground up soldiers by the tens of thousands, nor aerial holocausts visited on 
foreign civilians as in Dresden, Hiroshima, and North Vietnam. 

The change is palpable within the American military itself. Military leaders 
at all levels have become aware that gratuitous killing is a public-relations 
disaster at home and counterproductive abroad, alienating allies and embold- 
ening enemies. 178 The Marine Corps has instituted a martial-arts program in 
which leathernecks are indoctrinated in a new code of honor, the Ethical 
Marine Warrior. 179 The catechism is "The Ethical Warrior is a protector of life. 


Whose life? Self and others. Which others? All others." The code is instilled 
with empathy-expanding allegories such as "The Hunting Story," recounted 
by Robert Humphrey, a retired officer whose martial bona fides were impec- 
cable, having commanded a rifle platoon on Iwo Jima in World War II . 180 In 
this story, an American military unit is serving in a poor Asian country, and 
one day members of the unit go boar hunting as a diversion: 

They took a truck from the motor pool and headed out to the boondocks, 
stopping at a village to hire some local men to beat the brush and act as guides. 

This village was very poor. The huts were made of mud and there was 
no electricity or running water. The streets were unpaved dirt and the whole 
village smelled. Flies abounded. The men looked surly and wore dirty 
clothes. The women covered their faces, and the children had runny noses 
and were dressed in rags. 

It wasn't long before one American in the truck said, "This place stinks." 
Another said, "These people live just like animals." Finally, a young air force 
man said, "Yeah, they got nothin' to live for; they may as well be dead." 

What could you say? It seemed true enough. 

But just then, an old sergeant in the truck spoke up. He was the quiet type 
who never said much. In fact, except for his uniform, he kind of reminded 
you of one of the tough men in the village. He looked at the young airman 
and said, "You think they got nothin' to live for, do you? Well, if you are so 
sure, why don't you just take my knife, jump down off the back of this truck, 
and go try to kill one of them?" 

There was dead silence in the truck. . . . 

The sergeant went on to say, "I don't know either why they value their 
lives so much. Maybe it's those snotty nosed kids, or the women in the pan- 
taloons. But whatever it is, they care about their lives and the lives of their 
loved ones, same as we Americans do. And if we don't stop talking bad about 
them, they will kick us out of this country!" 

[A soldier] asked him what we Americans, with all our wealth, could do 
to prove our respect for the peasants' human equality despite their destitu- 
tion. The sergeant answered easily, "You got to be brave enough to jump off 
the back of this truck, knee deep in the mud and sheep dung. You got to 
have the courage to walk through this village with a smile on your face. And 
when you see the smelliest, scariest looking peasant, you got to be able to 
look him in the face and let him know, just with your eyes, that you know 
he is a man who hurts like you do, and hopes like you do, and wants for his 
kids just like we all do. It is that way or we lose." 

The code of the Ethical Warrior, even as an aspiration, shows that the Amer- 
ican armed forces have come a long way from a time when its soldiers referred 
to Vietnamese peasants as gooks, slopes, and slants and when the military was 


slow to investigate atrocities against civilians such as the massacre at My Lai. 
As former Marine captain Jack Hoban, who helped to implement the Ethical 
Warrior program, wrote to me, "When I first joined the Marines in the 1970s 
it was 'Kill, kill, kill.' The probability that there would have been an honor 
code that trained marines to be 'protectors of all others — including the enemy, 
if possible' would have been o percent." 

To be sure, the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first 
decade of the 21st century show that the country is far from reluctant to go to 
war. But even they are nothing like the wars of the past. In both conflicts the 
interstate war phase was quick and (by historical standards) low in battle 
deaths. 1 ® 1 Most of the deaths in Iraq were caused by intercommunal violence 
in the anarchy that followed, and by 2008 the toll of 4,000 American deaths 
(compare Vietnam's 58,000) helped elect a president who within two years 
brought the country's combat mission to an end. In Afghanistan, the U.S. Air 
Force followed a set of humanitarian protocols during the height of the anti- 
Taliban bombing campaign in 2008 that Human Rights Watch praised for its 
"very good record of minimizing harm to civilians." 1 ® 2 The political scientist 
Joshua Goldstein, in a discussion of how policies of smart targeting had mas- 
sively reduced civilian deaths in Kosovo and in both Iraq wars, comments on 
the use of armed drones against Taliban and A 1 Qaeda targets in Afghanistan 
and Pakistan in 2009: 

Where an army previously would have blasted its way in to the militants' 
hideouts, killing and displacing civilians by the tens of thousands as it went, 
and then ultimately reducing whole towns and villages to rubble with inac- 
curate artillery and aerial bombing in order to get at a few enemy fighters, 
now a drone flies in and lets fly a single missile against a single house where 
militants are gathered. Yes, sometimes such attacks hit the wrong house, but 
by any historical comparison the rate of civilian deaths has fallen dramatically. 

So far has this trend come, and so much do we take it for granted, that a 
single errant missile that killed ten civilians in Afghanistan was front-page 
news in February 2010. This event, a terrible tragedy in itself, nonetheless 
was an exception to a low overall rate of harm to civilians in the middle of 
a major military offensive, one of the largest in eight years of war. Yet, these 
ten deaths brought the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan to offer a 
profuse apology to the president of Afghanistan, and the world news media 
to play up the event as a major development in the offensive. The point is 
not that kil ling ten civilians is OK, but rather that in any previous war, even 
a few years ago, this kind of civilian death would barely have caused a 
ripple of attention. Civilian deaths, in sizable numbers, used to be univer- 
sally considered a necessary and inevitable, if perhaps unfortunate, by-product 
of war. That we are entering an era when these assumptions no longer apply 
is good news indeed. 1 ® 3 


Goldstein's assessment was confirmed in 2011 when Science magazine reported 
data from WikiLeaks documents and from a previously classified civilian 
casualty database of the American-led military coalition. The documents 
revealed that around 5,300 civilians had been killed in Afghanistan from 2004 
through 2010, the majority (around 80 percent) by Taliban insurgents rather 
than coalition forces. Even if the estimate is doubled, it would represent an 
extraordinarily low number of civilian deaths for a major military operation — 
in the Vietnam War, by comparison, at least 800,000 civilians died in battle. 184 

As big as the change in American attitudes toward war has been, the change 
in Europe is beyond recognition. As the foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan 
puts it, "Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus." 185 In February 
2003 mass demonstrations in European cities protested the impending 
American-led invasion of Iraq, drawing a million people each in London, 
Barcelona, and Rome, and more than half a million in Madrid and Berlin. 186 
In London the signs read "No Blood for Oil"; "Stop Mad Cowboy Disease"; 
"America, the Real Rogue State"; "Make Tea, Not War"; "Down with This Sort 
of Thing"; and simply "No." Germany and France conspicuously refused to 
join the United States and Britain, and Spain pulled out soon afterward. Even 
the war in Afghanistan, which aroused less opposition in Europe, is being 
fought mainly by American soldiers. Not only do they make up more than 
half of the forty-four-nation NATO military operation, but the continental 
forces have acquired a certain reputation when it comes to martial virtues. A 
Canadian armed forces captain wrote to me from Kabul in 2003: 

During this morning's Kalashnikov concerto, I was waiting for the tower 
guards in our camp to open fire. I think they were asleep. That's par for the 
course. Our towers are manned by the Bundeswehr, and they haven't been 
doing a good job . . . when they're actually there. I qualified that last com- 
ment because the Germans have already abandoned the towers several 
times. The first time was when we got hit by rockets. The remaining instances 
had something to do with it being cold in the towers. A German Lieutenant 
with whom I spoke about this lack of honour and basic soldier etiquette 
replied that it was Canada's responsibility to provide heaters for the towers. 

I snapped back by mentioning that it was Germany's responsibility to pro- 
vide warm clothing to its soldiers. I was tempted to mention something 
about Kabul not being Stalingrad, but I held my tongue. 

The German army of today is not what it once was. Or, as I've heard 
mentioned here several times: "This ain't the Wehrmacht." Given the history 
of our people, I can make the argument that that's a very good thing indeed. 
However, since my safety now rests upon the vigilance of the Herrenvolk's 
progeny. I'm slightly concerned to say the least. 1 ® 7 

In a book titled Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of 


Modern Europe (and in Britain, The Monopoly on Violence: Why Europeans Hate 
Going to War), the historian James Sheehan argues that Europeans have 
changed their very conception of the state. It is no longer the proprietor of a 
military force that enhances the grandeur and security of the nation, but a 
provisioner of social security and material well-being. Nonetheless, for all the 
differences between the American "mad cowboys" and the European "sur- 
render monkeys," the parallel movement of their political culture away from 
war over the past six decades is more historically significant than their remain- 
ing differences. 


What went right? How is it that, in defiance of experts, doomsday clocks, and 
centuries of European history. World War III never happened? What allowed 
distinguished military historians to use giddy phrases like "a change of spec- 
tacular proportions," "the most striking discontinuity in the history of war- 
fare," and "nothing like this in history"? 

To many people, the answer is obvious: the bomb. War had become too 
dangerous to contemplate, and leaders were scared straight. The balance of 
nuclear terror deterred them from starting a war that would escalate to a 
holocaust and put an end to civilization, if not human life itself.’ 88 As Winston 
Churchill said in his last major speech to Parliament, "It may well be that we 
shall by a process of sublime irony have reached a stage in this story where 
safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of anni- 
hilation."’ 89 In the same vein, the foreign policy analyst Kenneth Waltz has 
suggested that we "thank our nuclear blessings," and Elspeth Rostow pro- 
posed that the nuclear bomb be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.’ 90 

Let's hope not. If the Long Peace were a nuclear peace, it would be a fool's 
paradise, because an accident, a miscommunication, or an air force general 
obsessed with precious bodily fluids could set off an apocalypse. Thankfully, 
a closer look suggests that the threat of nuclear annihilation deserves little 
credit for the Long Peace.’ 9 ’ 

For one thing, weapons of mass destruction had never braked the march to 
war before. The benefactor of the Nobel Peace Prize wrote in the 1860s that his 
invention of dynamite would "sooner lead to peace than a thousand world 
conventions, [since] as soon as men will find that in one instant whole armies 
can be utterly destroyed, they will surely abide in golden peace."’ 92 Similar 
predictions have been made about submarines, artillery, smokeless powder, 
and the machine gun.’ 93 The 1930s saw a widespread fear that poison gas 
dropped from airplanes could bring an end to civilization and human life, yet 
that dread did not come close to ending war either.’ 94 As Luard puts it, "There 
is little evidence in history that the existence of supremely destructive weapons 
alone is capable of deterring war. If the development of bacteriological weapons. 


poison gas, nerve gases, and other chemical armaments did not deter war in 
1939, it is not easy to see why nuclear weapons should do so now." 195 

Also, the theory of the nuclear peace cannot explain why countries without 
nuclear weapons also forbore war — why, for example, the 1995 squabble over 
fishing rights between Canada and Spain, or the 1997 dispute between Hun- 
gary and Slovakia over damming the Danube, never escalated into war, as 
crises involving European countries had so often done in the past. During the 
Long Peace leaders of developed countries never had to calculate which of 
their counterparts they could get away with attacking (yes for Germany and 
Italy, no for Britain and France), because they never contemplated a military 
attack in the first place. Nor were they deterred by nuclear godparents — it 
wasn't as if the United States had to threaten Canada and Spain with a nuclear 
spanking if they got too obstreperous in their dispute over flatfish. 

As for the superpowers themselves, Mueller points to a simpler explanation 
for why they avoided fighting each other: they were deterred plenty by the 
prospect of a conventional war. World War II showed that assembly lines could 
mass-produce tanks, artillery, and bombers that were capable of killing tens 
of millions of people and reducing cities to rubble. This was especially obvi- 
ous in the Soviet Union, which had suffered the greatest losses in the war. It's 
unlikely that the marginal difference between the unthinkable damage that 
would be caused by a nuclear war and the thinkable but still staggering dam- 
age that would be caused by a conventional war was the main thing that kept 
the great powers from fighting. 

Finally, the nuclear peace theory cannot explain why the wars that did take 
place often had a nonnuclear force provoking (or failing to surrender to) a 
nuclear one — exactly the matchup that the nuclear threat ought to have 
deterred. 196 North Korea, North Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Panama, and Yugoslavia 
defied the United States; Afghan and Chechen insurgents defied the Soviet 
Union; Egypt defied Britain and France; Egypt and Syria defied Israel; Vietnam 
defied China; and Argentina defied the United Kingdom. For that matter, the 
Soviet Union established its stranglehold on Eastern Europe during just those 
years (1945-49) when the United States had nuclear weapons and it did not. 
The countries that goaded their nuclear superiors were not suicidal. They cor- 
rectly anticipated that for anything but an existential danger, the implicit threat 
of a nuclear response was a bluff. The Argentinian junta ordered the invasion 
of the Falkland Islands in full confidence that Britain would not retaliate by 
reducing Buenos Aires to a radioactive crater. Nor could Israel have credibly 
threatened the amassed Egyptian armies in 1967 or 1973, to say nothing of 

Schelling, and the political scientist Nina Tannenwald, have each written 
of "a nuclear taboo" — a shared perception that nuclear weapons fall into a 
uniquely dreadful category. 197 The use of a single tactical nuclear weapon, even 
one comparable in damage to conventional weaponry, would be seen as a 


breach in history, a passage into a new world with unimaginable consequences. 
The obloquy has attached itself to every form of nuclear detonation. The neu- 
tron bomb, a weapon that would cause minimal blast damage but would kill 
soldiers with a transient burst of radiation, fell deadborn from the military 
lab because of universal loathing, even though, as the political scientist Stan- 
ley Hoffman pointed out, it satisfied the moral philosophers' requirements for 
waging a just war. 198 The half-crazed "Atoms for Peace" schemes of the 1950s 
and 1960s, in which nuclear explosions would be harnessed to dig canals, 
excavate harbors, or propel rockets into space, are now the stuff of incredulous 
reminiscences of a benighted age. 

To be sure, the nonuse of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki falls short of an 
out-and-out taboo. 199 Nuclear bombs don't build themselves, and nations have 
devoted enormous thought to the design, construction, delivery, and terms of 
use of these weapons. But this activity has been compartmentalized into a 
sphere of hypothetical that barely intersects with the planning of actual wars. 
And there are telltale signs that the psychology of taboo — a mutual under- 
standing that certain thoughts are evil to think — has been engaged, starting 
with the word that is most commonly applied to the prospect of nuclear war: 
unthinkable. In 1964, after Barry Goldwater had mused about how tactical 
nuclear weapons might be used in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson's electoral cam- 
paign aired the famous "Daisy" television ad, in which footage of a girl count- 
ing the petals of a daisy segues into a countdown to a nuclear explosion. The 
ad has been given some of the credit for Johnson's landslide election victory 
that year. 200 Religious allusions have surrounded nuclear weapons ever since 
Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad-Gita when he viewed the first 
atomic test in 1945: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." More 
commonly the language has been biblical: Apocalypse, Armageddon, the End 
of Days, Judgment Day. Dean Rusk, secretary of state in the Kennedy and John- 
son administrations, wrote that if the country had used a nuclear weapon, "we 
would have worn the mark of Cain for generations to come." 201 The physicist 
Alvin Weinberg, whose research helped make the bomb possible, asked in 1985: 

Are we witnessing a gradual sanctification of Hiroshima — that is, the eleva- 
tion of Hiroshima to the status of a profoundly mystical event, an event 
ultimately of the same religious force as biblical events? I cannot prove it, 
but I am convinced that the 40th Anniversary of Hiroshima, with its vast 
outpouring of concern, bears resemblance to the observance of major reli- 
gious holidays. . . . This sanctification of Hiroshima is one of the most hope- 
ful developments of the nuclear era. 202 

The nuclear taboo emerged only gradually. As we saw in chapter 1, for at 
least a decade after Hiroshima many Americans thought the A-bomb was 
adorable. By 1953 John Foster Dulles, secretary of state in the Eisenhower 


administration, was deploring what he called the "false distinction" and 
"taboo" surrounding nuclear weapons. 203 During a 1955 crisis involving Tai- 
wan and the People's Republic of China, Eisenhower said, "In any combat 
where these things can be used on strictly military targets and for strictly 
military purposes, I see no reason why they shouldn't be used just exactly as 
you would use a bullet or anything else." 204 

But in the following decade nuclear weapons acquired a stigma that would 
put such statements beyond the pale. It began to sink in that the weapons' 
destructive capacity was of a different order from anything in history, that 
they violated any conception of proportionality in the waging of war, and that 
plans for civil defense (like backyard fallout shelters and duck-and-cover 
drills) were a travesty. People became aware that lingering radiation from 
nuclear fallout could cause chromosome damage and cancer for decades after 
the actual explosions. The fallout from atmospheric tests had already con- 
taminated rainfall all over the world with strontium 90, a radioactive isotope 
resembling calcium that is taken up in the bones and teeth of children (inspir- 
ing Malvina Reynolds's protest song "What Have They Done to the Rain?"). 

Though the United States and the USSR continued to develop nuclear technol- 
ogy at a breakneck pace, they began, however hypocritically, to pay homage to 
nuclear disarmament in conferences and statements. At the same time a grassroots 
movement began to stigmatize the weapons. Demonstrations and petitions 
attracted millions of citizens, together with public figures such as Linus Pauling, 
Bertrand Russell, and Albert Schweitzer. The mounting pressure helped nudge 
the superpowers to a moratorium and then a ban on atmospheric nuclear testing, 
and then to a string of arms-control agreements. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 
was a tipping point. Lyndon Johnson capitalized on the change to demonize 
Goldwater in the Daisy ad and called attention to the categorical boundary in a 
1964 public statement: "Make no mistake. There is no such thing as a conventional 
nuclear weapon. For nineteen peril-filled years no nation has loosed the atom 
against another. To do so now is a political decision of the highest order." 205 

As the world's luck held out, and the two nuclear-free decades grew to three 
and four and five and six, the taboo fed on itself in the runaway process by 
which norms become common knowledge. The use of nuclear weapons was 
unthinkable because everyone knew it was unthinkable, and everyone knew 
that everyone knew it. The fact that wars both large (Vietnam) and small 
(Falklands) were not deterred by the increasingly ineffectual nuclear threat 
was a small price to pay for the indefinite postponement of Armageddon. 

A norm that rests only on mutual recognition of that norm is, of course, vulner- 
able to a sudden unraveling. One might worry — one should worry — that 
nuclear nations outside the club of great powers, such as India, Pakistan, North 
Korea, and perhaps soon Iran, may not be party to the common understanding 
that the use of nuclear weapons is unthinkable. Worse, a terrorist organization 


that pilfered a stray nuclear weapon could make a point of defying the taboo, 
since the whole point of international terrorism is to shock the world with the 
most horrific spectacle imaginable. Once the precedent of a single nuclear explo- 
sion was set, one might worry, all restraints would be put aside. A pessimist 
might argue that even if the Long Peace has not, thus far, depended on nuclear 
deterrence, it is an ephemeral hiatus. It will surely end as nuclear weapons 
proliferate, a maniac from the developing world brings the lucky streak to an 
end, and the taboo comes undone among small and great powers alike. 

No judicious person can feel calm about the parlous state of nuclear safety 
in today's world. But even here, things are not as bad as many people think. 
In the next chapter. I'll examine the prospect of nuclear terrorism. For now, 
let's look at nuclear states. 

One hopeful sign is that nuclear proliferation has not proceeded at the furi- 
ous rate that everyone expected. In the i960 presidential election debates, 
John F. Kennedy predicted that by 1964 there might be "ten, fifteen, twenty" 
countries with nuclear weapons. 206 The concern accelerated when China con- 
ducted its first nuclear test in 1964, bringing the number of nations in the 
nuclear club to five in less than twenty years. Tom Lehrer captured popular 
fears of runaway nuclear proliferation in his song "Who's Next?" which ran 
through a list of countries that he expected would soon become nuclear pow- 
ers ("Luxemburg is next to go / And who knows? Maybe Monaco"). 

But the only country that fulfilled his prophecy is Israel (" 'The Lord's my 
shepherd,' says the Psalm / But just in case — we better get a bomb!"). Contrary 
to expert predictions that Japan would "unequivocally start on the process of 
acquiring nuclear weapons" by 1980 and that a reunified Germany "will feel inse- 
cure without nuclear weapons," neither country seems interested in developing 
them. 207 And believe it or not, since 1964 as many countries have given up nuclear 
weapons as have acquired them. Say what? While Israel, India, Pakistan, and North 
Korea currently have a nuclear capability. South Africa dismantled its stash shortly 
before the collapse of the apartheid regime in 1989, and Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and 
Belarus said "no thanks" to the arsenals they inherited from the defunct Soviet 
Union. Also, believe it or not, the number of nonnuclear nations that are pursuing 
nuclear weapons has plummeted since the 1980s. Figure 5-22, based on a tally by 
the political scientist Scott Sagan, charts the number of nonnuclear states in each 
year since 1945 that had programs for developing nuclear weapons. 

The downslopes in the curve show that at various times Algeria, Australia, 
Brazil, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Romania, South Korea, Switzerland, Sweden, Tai- 
wan, and Yugoslavia have pursued nuclear weapons but then thought the 
better of it- — occasionally through the persuasion of an Israeli air strike, but 
more often by choice. 

How precarious is the nuclear taboo? Will a rogue state inevitably defy the 
taboo and thereby annul it for the rest of the world? Doesn't history show that 


FIGURE 5-22. Nonnuclear states that started and stopped exploring nuclear weapons, 

Country names marked with represent the year in which a nuclear program in that country was 
stopped. The countries labeled in gray were believed to be exploring nuclear weapons in 2010. Though 
Israel bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, as of 2010 Syria has refused International 
Atomic Energy Agency inspections, so it is kept on the list of active states. Sources: Graph adapted 
from Sagan, 2009, with updated information in Sagan, 2010, provided by Scott Sagan and Jane Esberg. 

every weapons technology will sooner or later be put to use and then become 

The story of poison gas — the quintessential horror of World War I — is one 
place to look for an answer. In his book The Chemical Weapons Taboo, the polit- 
ical scientist Richard Price recounts how chemical weapons acquired their 
own stigma during the first half of the 20th century. The Hague Convention 
of 1899, one of a number of international agreements that aimed to regulate 
the conduct of war, had banned hollow-point bullets, aerial bombing (from 
balloons, that is, since the invention of the airplane was four years away), and 
projectiles that delivered poison gas. Given what was to come, the convention 
may seem like another candidate for history's dustbin of toothless feel-good 

But Price shows that even the combatants of World War I felt the need to 
pay the convention homage. When Germany introduced lethal gas to the bat- 
tlefield, it claimed that it was retaliating for France's use of tear gas grenades 
and that anyway, it was conforming to the letter of the law because it didn't 
deliver the gas in artillery shells but just opened the cylinders and let the wind 
waft the gas toward the enemy. That these rationalizations were utterly lame 


shouldn't obscure the fact that Germany felt the need to justify its behavior at 
all. England, France, and the United States then claimed to be acting in repri- 
sal for Germany's illegal use, and all sides agreed that the convention was no 
longer in force because nonsignatories (including the United States) had joined 
the conflict. 

After the war, a revulsion against chemical weapons spread through the 
world. A prohibition with fewer loopholes was institutionalized in the Geneva 
Protocol of 1925, which declared, "Whereas the use in war of asphyxiating, 
poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, 
has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world . . . 
the prohibition of such use . . . shall be universally accepted as part of Inter- 
national Law, binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations." 208 
Eventually 133 countries signed it, though many of the signatories reserved 
the right to stockpile the weapons as a deterrent. As Winston Churchill 
explained, "We are, ourselves, firmly resolved not to use this odious weapon 
unless it is used first by the Germans. Knowing our Elun, however, we have 
not neglected to make preparations on a formidable scale." 209 

Whether or not it was the piece of paper that made the difference, the taboo 
against the use of poison gas in interstate warfare took hold. Astonishingly, 
though both sides had tons of the stuff, poison gas was never used on the 
battlefield during World War II. Each side wanted to avoid the opprobrium of 
being the first to reintroduce poison gas to the battlefield, especially while the 
Nazis were hoping that England might accede to their conquest of continental 
Europe. And each side feared retaliation by the other. 

The restraint held even in the face of destabilizing events that might have 
been expected to trigger an unstoppable escalation. In at least two episodes 
in Europe, poison gas was accidentally released by Allied forces. Explanations 
were conveyed to the German commanders, who believed them and did not 
retaliate. 210 A bit of cognitive compartmentalization helped too. In the 1930s 
Fascist Italy used poison gas in Abyssinia, and Imperial Japan used it in China. 
But these events were cordoned off in leaders' minds because they took place 
in "uncivilized" parts of the world rather than within the family of nations. 
Neither registered as a breach that would have nullified the taboo. 

The only sustained uses of poison gas in war since the 1930s were by Egypt 
in Yemen in 1967 and by Iraq against Iranian forces (and its own Kurdish 
citizens) during the war of 1980-88. Defying the taboo may have been Saddam 
Hussein's undoing. The revulsion against his use of poison gas muted some 
of the opposition to the United States-led war that deposed him in 2003, and 
it figured in two of the seven charges against him in the Iraqi trial that led to 
his execution in 2006. 211 The world's nations formally abolished chemical weap- 
ons in 1993, and every known stockpile is in the process of being dismantled. 

It's not immediately obvious why, out of all the weapons of war, poison gas 
was singled out as uniquely abominable — as so uncivilized that even the Nazis 


kept it off the battlefield. (They clearly had no compunction about using it 
elsewhere.) It's highly unpleasant to be gassed, but then it's just as unpleasant 
to be perforated or shredded by pieces of metal. As far as numbers are con- 
cerned, gas is far less lethal than bullets and bombs. In World War I fewer than 
1 percent of the men who were injured by poison gas died from their injuries, 
and these fatalities added up to less than 1 percent of the war's death toll . 212 
Though chemical warfare is militarily messy — no battlefield commander 
wants to be at the mercy of which way the wind is blowing — Germany could 
have used it to devastate the British forces at Dunkirk, and American forces 
would have found it handy in rooting out the Japanese soldiers hiding in caves 
in the Pacific Rim. And even if chemical weapons are difficult to deploy, that 
would hardly make them unique, since most new weapon technologies are 
ineffective when they are introduced. The first gunpowder weapons, for exam- 
ple, were slow to load, difficult to aim, and apt to blow up in the soldier's face. 
Nor were chemical weapons the first to be condemned for barbarism: in the 
era of longbows and pikes, gunpowder weapons were denounced as immoral, 
unmanly, and cowardly. Why did the taboo against chemical weapons take? 

One possibility is that the human mind finds something distinctively repug- 
nant about poison. Whatever suspension of the normal rules of decency allows 
warriors to do their thing, it seems to license only the sudden and directed appli- 
cation of force against an adversary who has the potential to do the same. Even 
pacifists may enjoy war movies or video games in which people get shot, stabbed, 
or blown up, but no one seems to get pleasure from watching a greenish cloud 
descend on a battlefield and slowly turn men into corpses. The poisoner has long 
been reviled as a uniquely foul and perfidious killer. Poison is the method of the 
sorcerer rather than the warrior; of the woman (with her terrifying control of 
kitchen and medicine chest) rather than the man. In Venomous Woman, the liter- 
ary scholar Margaret Hallissy explains the archetype: 

Poison can never be used as an honorable weapon in a fair duel between 
worthy opponents, as the sword or gun, male weapons, can. A man who 
uses such a secret weapon is beneath contempt. Publicly acknowledged 
rivalry is a kind of bonding in which each worthy opponent gives the other 
the opportunity to demonstrate prowess. . . . The dueler is open, honest, and 
strong; the poisoner fraudulent, scheming, and weak. A man with a gun or 
a sword is a threat, but he declares himself to be so, and his intended victim 
can arm himself. . . . The poisoner uses superior secret knowledge to com- 
pensate for physical inferiority. A weak woman planning a poison is as 
deadly as a man with a gun, but because she plots in secret, the victim is 
more disarmed . 213 

Whatever abhorrence of poisoning we might have inherited from our evo- 
lutionary or cultural past, it needed a boost from historical contingency to 


become entrenched as a taboo on the conduct of war. Price conjectures that 
the critical nonevent was that in World War I, poison gas was never deliberately 
used against civilians. At least in that application, no taboo-shattering prec- 
edent had been set, and the widespread horror in the 1930s about the prospect 
that gas-dispensing airplanes could annihilate entire cities rallied people into 
categorically opposing all uses of the weapons. 

The analogies between the chemical weapons taboo and the nuclear weap- 
ons taboo are clear enough. Today the two are lumped together as "weapons 
of mass destruction," though nuclear weapons are incomparably more destruc- 
tive, because each taboo can draw strength from the other by association. The 
dread of both kinds of weapons is multiplied by the prospect of slow 
death by sickening and the absence of a boundary between battlefield and 
civilian life. 

The world's experience with chemical weapons offers some morals that are 
mildly hopeful, at least by the terrifying standards of the nuclear age. Not 
every lethal technology becomes a permanent part of the military tool kit; 
some genies can be put back in their bottles; and moral sentiments can some- 
times become entrenched as international norms and affect the conduct of 
war. Those norms, moreover, can be robust enough to withstand an isolated 
exception, which does not necessarily set off an uncontrollable escalation. That 
in particular is a hopeful discovery, though it might be good for the world if 
not too many people were aware of it. 

If the world did away with chemical weapons, could it do the same with 
nuclear weapons? Recently a group of American icons proposed just that in 
an idealistic manifesto entitled "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons." The icons 
were not Peter, Paul, and Mary but George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kis- 
singer, and Sam Nunn. 214 Shultz was secretary of state in the Reagan admin- 
istration. Perry was secretary of defense under Clinton. Kissinger was national 
security advisor and secretary of state under Nixon and Ford. Nunn was a 
chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and has long been con- 
sidered the American lawmaker most knowledgeable about national defense. 
None could be accused of starry-eyed pacifism. 

Supporting them is a dream team of war-hardened statesmen from Demo- 
cratic and Republican administrations going back to that of John F. Kennedy. 
They include five former secretaries of state, five former national security 
advisors, and four former secretaries of defense. In all, three-quarters of the 
living alumni of those positions signed on to the call for a phased, verified, 
binding elimination of all nuclear weapons, now sometimes called Global 
Zero. 215 Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have endorsed it in speeches 
(one of the reasons Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009), and 
several policy think tanks have begun to work out how it might be imple- 


merited. The leading road map calls for four phases of negotiation, reduction, 
and verification, with the last warhead dismantled in 2030. 216 

As one might guess from the resumes of its supporters. Global Zero has 
some hardheaded realpolitik behind it. Since the end of the Cold War, the 
nuclear arsenal of the great powers has become an absurdity* It is no longer 
needed to deter an existential threat from an enemy superpower, and given 
the nuclear taboo, it serves no other military purpose. The threat of a retalia- 
tory strike cannot deter stateless terrorists, because their bomb would not 
come with a return address, and if they were religious fanatics there would 
be nothing on earth that they valued enough to threaten. As praiseworthy as 
the various nuclear arms reduction agreements have been, they make little 
difference to global security as long as thousands of weapons remain in exis- 
tence and the technology to make new ones is not forgotten. 

The psychology behind Global Zero is to extend the taboo on using nuclear 
weapons to a taboo on possessing them. Taboos depend on a mutual under- 
standing that there are bright lines delineating all-or-none categories, and the 
line distinguishing zero from more-than-zero is the brightest of all. No coun- 
try could justify acquiring a nuclear weapon to protect itself against a nuclear- 
armed neighbor if it had no nuclear-armed neighbors. Nor could it claim that 
the nuclear legacy nations were hypocritically reserving the right to keep their 
own weapons. A developing nation could no longer try to look like a grown-up 
by acquiring a nuclear arsenal if the grown-ups had eschewed the weapons 
as old-fashioned and repulsive. And any rogue state or terrorist group that 
flirted with acquiring a nuclear weapon would become a pariah in the eyes of 
the world — a depraved criminal rather than a redoubtable challenger. 

The problem, of course, is how to get there from here. The process of dis- 
mantling the weapons would open windows of vulnerability during which 
one of the remaining nuclear powers could fall under the sway of an expan- 
sionist zealot. Nations would be tempted to cheat by retaining a few nukes on 
the side just in case their adversaries did so. A rogue state might support 
nuclear terrorists once it was sure that it would never be a target of retaliation. 
And in a world that lacked nuclear weapons but retained the knowledge of 
how to build them — and that genie certainly can't be put back in the bottle — 
a crisis could set off a scramble to rearm, in which the first past the post might 
be tempted to strike preemptively before its adversary got the upper hand. 
Some experts on nuclear strategy, including Schelling, John Deutch, and Har- 
old Brown, are skeptical that a nuclear-free world is attainable or even desir- 
able, though others are working out timetables and safeguards designed to 
answer their objections. 217 

With all these uncertainties, no one should predict that nuclear weapons 
will go the way of poison gas anytime soon. But it is a sign of the momentum 
behind the Long Peace that abolition can even be discussed as a foreseeable 


prospect. If it happens, it would represent the ultimate decline in violence. A 
nuclear-free world! What realist would have dreamed it? 


If the Long Peace is not the sturdy child of terror and the twin brother of anni- 
hilation, then whose child is it? Can we identify an exogenous variable — some 
development that is not part of the peace itself — that blossomed in the postwar 
years and that we have reason to believe is a generic force against war? Is there 
a causal story with more explanatory muscle than "Developed countries 
stopped warring because they got less warlike"? 

In chapter 4 we met a two-hundred-year-old theory that offers some pre- 
dictions. In his essay "Perpetual Peace," Immanuel Kant reasoned that three 
conditions should reduce the incentives of national leaders to wage war with- 
out their having to become any kinder or gentler. 

The first is democracy. Democratic government is designed to resolve con- 
flicts among citizens by consensual rule of law, and so democracies should 
externalize this ethic in dealing with other states. Also, every democracy 
knows the way every other democracy works, since they're all constructed on 
the same rational foundations rather than growing out of a cult of personality, 
a messianic creed, or a chauvinistic mission. The resulting trust among democ- 
racies should nip in the bud the Hobbesian cycle in which the fear of a pre- 
emptive attack on each side tempts both into launching a preemptive attack. 
Finally, since democratic leaders are accountable to their people, they should 
be less likely to initiate stupid wars that enhance their glory at the expense of 
their citizenries' blood and treasure. 

The Democratic Peace, as the theory is now called, has two things going 
for it as an explanation for the Long Peace. The first is that the trend lines are 
in the right direction. In most of Europe, democracy has surprisingly shallow 
roots. The eastern half was dominated by communist dictatorships until 1989, 
and Spain, Portugal, and Greece were fascist dictatorships until the 1970s. 
Germany started one world war as a militaristic monarchy, joined by monar- 
chical Austria-Hungary, and another as a Nazi dictatorship, joined by Fas- 
cist Italy. Even France needed five tries to get democracy right, interleaved 
with monarchies, empires, and Vichy regimes. Not so long ago many experts 
thought that democracy was doomed. In 1975 Daniel Patrick Moynihan 
lamented that "liberal democracy on the American model increasingly tends 
to the condition of monarchy in the 19th century: a holdover form of govern- 
ment, one which persists in isolated or peculiar places here and there, and 
may even serve well enough for special circumstances, but which has simply 
no relevance to the future. It was where the world was, not where it is going." 218 

Social scientists should never predict the future; it's hard enough to predict 
the past. Figure 5-23 shows the worldwide fortunes of democracies, autocra- 


cies, and anocracies (countries that are neither fully democratic nor fully auto- 
cratic) in the decades since World War II. The year in which Moynihan 
announced the death of democracy was a turning point in the relative fortunes 
of the different forms of governance, and democracy turned out to be exactly 
where the world was going, particularly the developed world. Southern 
Europe became fully democratic in the 1970s, and Eastern Europe by the early 
1990s. Currently the only European country classified as an autocracy is 
Belarus, and all but Russia are full-fledged democracies. Democracies also 
predominate in the Americas and in major developed countries of the Pacific, 
such as South Korea and Taiwan. 219 Quite apart from any contribution that 
democracy might make to international peace, it is a form of government that 
inflicts the minimum of violence on its own citizens, so the rise of democracy 
itself must be counted as another milestone in the historical decline of violence. 

The second selling point for the Democratic Peace is a factoid that is some- 
times elevated to a law of history. Here it is explained by the former U.K. prime 
minister Tony Blair in a 2008 interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: 

Stewart: Our president — have you met him? He's a big freedom guy. He 
believes if everyone was a democracy, there'd be no more fighting. 

Blair: Well, as a matter of history, no two democracies have gone to war 
against each other. 

Stewart: Let me ask you a question. Argentina. Democracy? 

FIGURE 5-23. Democracies, autocracies, and anocracies, 1946-2008 

Source: Graph adapted from Marshall & Cole, 2009. Only countries with a 2008 population greater 

than 500,000 are counted. 

280 the better angels of our nature 

Blair: Well, it's a democracy. They elect their president. 

Stewart: England. Democracy? 

Blair: More or less. It was when I was last there. 

Stewart: Uh . . . didn't you guys fight? 

Blair: Actually, at the time Argentina was not a democracy. 

Stewart: Damn it! I thought I had him. 

If developed countries became democratic after World War II, and if democra- 
cies never go to war with one another, then we have an explanation for why 
developed countries stopped going to war after World War II. 

As Stewart's skeptical questioning implies, the Democratic Peace theory 
has come under scrutiny, especially after it provided part of the rationale for 
Bush and Blair's invasion of Iraq in 2003. History buffs have delighted in com- 
ing up with possible counterexamples; here are a few from a collection by 

• Greek Wars, 5th century BCE: Athens vs. Syracuse 

• Punic Wars, 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE: Rome vs. Carthage 

• American Revolution, 1775-83: United States vs. Great Britain 

• French Revolutionary Wars, 1793-99: France vs. Great Britain, Switzerland, 
the Netherlands 

• War of 1812, 1812-15: United States vs. Great Britain 

• Franco-Roman War, 1849: France vs. Roman Republic 

• American Civil War, 1861-65: United States vs. Confederate States 

• Spanish-American War, 1898: United States vs. Spain 

• Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1901: Great Britain vs. Transvaal and the Orange 
Free State 

• First India-Pakistan War, 1947-49 

• Lebanese Civil War, 1978, 1982: Israel vs. Lebanon 

• Croatian War of Independence, 1991-92: Croatia vs. Yugoslavia 

• Kosovo War, 1999: NATO vs. Yugoslavia 

• Kargil War, 1999: India vs. Pakistan 

• Israel-Lebanon War, 2006 220 

Each counterexample has prompted scrutiny as to whether the states 
involved were truly democratic. Greece, Rome, and the Confederacy were 
slaveholding states; Britain was a monarchy with a minuscule popular fran- 
chise until 1832. The other wars involved fledgling or marginal democracies 
at best, such as Lebanon, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, and 19th-century France and 
Spain. And until the early decades of the 20th century, the franchise was with- 
held from women, who, as we will see, tend to be more dovish in their voting 
than men. Most advocates of the Democratic Peace are willing to write off the 
centuries before the 20th, together with new and unstable democracies, and 


insist that since then no two mature, stable democracies have fought each other 
in a war. 

Critics of the Democratic Peace theory then point out that if one draws the 
circle of "democracy" small enough, not that many countries are left in it, so 
by the laws of probability it's not surprising that we find few wars with a 
democracy on each side. Other than the great powers, two countries tend to 
fight only if they share a border, so most of the theoretical matchups are ruled 
out by geography anyway. We don't need to bring in democracy to explain 
why New Zealand and Uruguay have never gone to war, or Belgium and Tai- 
wan. If one restricts the database even further by sloughing off early pieces of 
the time line (restricting it, as some do, to the period after World War II), then 
a more cynical theory accounts for the Long Peace: since the start of the Cold 
War, allies of the world's dominant power, the United States, haven't fought 
each other. Other manifestations of the Long Peace — such as the fact that the 
great powers never fought each other — were never explained by the Demo- 
cratic Peace in the first place and, according to the critics, probably came from 
mutual deterrence, nuclear or conventional. 221 

A final headache for the Democratic Peace theory, at least as it applies to 
overall war-proneness, is that democracies often don't behave as nicely as Kant 
said they should. The idea that democracies externalize their law-governed 
assignment of power and peaceful resolution of conflicts doesn't sit comfort- 
ably with the many wars that Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium 
fought to acquire and defend their colonial empires — at least thirty-three 
between 1838 and 1920, and a few more extending into the 1950s and even 
1960s (such as France in Algeria). Equally disconcerting for Democratic Peace- 
niks are the American interventions during the Cold War, when the CIA 
helped overthrow more-or-less democratic governments in Iran (1953), Gua- 
temala (1954), and Chile (1973) which had tilted too far leftward for its liking. 
The advocates reply that European imperialism, though it did not vanish 
instantaneously, was plummeting abroad just as democracy was rising at 
home, and that the American interventions were covert operations hidden 
from the public rather than wars conducted in full view and thus were excep- 
tions proving the rule. 222 

When a debate devolves into sliding definitions, cherry-picked examples, 
and ad hoc excuses, it's time to call in the statistics of deadly quarrels. Two 
political scientists, Bruce Russett and John Oneal, have breathed new life into 
the Democratic Peace theory by firming up the definitions, controlling the 
confounding variables, and testing a quantitative version of the theory: not 
that democracies never go to war (in which case every putative counter- 
example becomes a matter of life or death) but that they go to war less often 
than nondemocracies, all else being equal. 223 

Russett and Oneal untangled the knot with a statistical technique that sep- 
arates the effects of confounded variables: multiple logistic regression. Say you 


discover that heavy smokers have more heart attacks, and you want to confirm 
that the greater risk was caused by the smoking rather than by the lack of exer- 
cise that tends to go with smoking. First you try to account for as much of the 
heart attack data as you can using the nuisance factor, exercise rates. After 
looking at a large sample of men's health records, you might determine that on 
average, every additional hour of exercise per week cuts a man's chance of hav- 
i ng a heart attack by a certain amount. Still, the correlation is not perfect — some 
couch potatoes have healthy hearts; some athletes collapse in the gym. The 
difference between the heart attack rate one would predict, given a certain rate 
of exercise, and the actual heart attack rate one measures is called a residual. 
The entire set of residuals gives you some numbers to play with in ascertaining 
the effects of the variable you're really interested in, smoking. 

Now you capitalize on a second source of wiggle room. On average, heavy 
smokers exercise less, but some of them exercise a lot, while some nonsmokers 
hardly exercise at all. This provides a second set of residuals: the discrepan- 
cies between the men's actual rate of smoking and the rate one would predict 
based on their exercise rate. Finally, you see whether the residuals left over 
from the smoking-exercise relationship (the degree to which men smoke more 
or less than you'd predict from their exercise rate) correlate with the residuals 
left over from the exercise-heart attack relationship (the degree to which men 
have more or fewer heart attacks than you'd predict from their exercise rate). 
If the residuals correlate with the residuals, you can conclude that smoking 
correlates with heart attacks, above and beyond their joint correlation with 
exercise. And if you measured smoking at an earlier point in the men's lives, 
and heart attacks at a later point (to rule out the possibility that heart attacks 
make men smoke, rather than vice versa), you can inch toward the claim that 
smoking causes heart attacks. Multiple regression allows you to do this not 
just with two tangled predictors, but with any number of them. 

A general problem with multiple regression is that the more predictors you 
want to untangle, the more data you need, because more and more of the 
variation in the data gets "used up" as each nuisance variable sucks up as 
much of the variation as it can and the hypothesis you're interested in has to 
make do with the rest. And fortunately for humanity, but unfortunately for 
social scientists, interstate wars don't break out all that often. The Correlates 
of War Project counts only 79 full-fledged interstate wars (killing at least a 
thousand people a year) between 1823 and 1997, and only 49 since 1900, far too 
few for statistics. So Russett and Oneal looked at a much larger database that 
lists militarized interstate disputes — incidents in which a country put its forces 
on alert, fired a shot across a bow, sent its warplanes scrambling, crossed 
swords, rattled sabers, or otherwise flexed its military muscles. 224 Assuming 
that for every war that actually breaks out there are many more disputes that 
stop short of war but have similar causes, the disputes should be shaped by 
the same causes as the wars themselves, and thus can serve as a plentiful 


surrogate for wars. The Correlates of War Project identified more than 2,300 
militarized interstate disputes between 1816 and 2001, a number that can sat- 
isfy even a data-hungry social scientist. 225 

Russett and Oneal first lined up their units of analysis: pairs of countries 
in every year from 1886 to 2001 that had at least some risk of going to war, 
either because they were neighbors or because one of them was a great power. 
The datum of interest was whether in fact the pair had had a militarized dis- 
pute that year. Then they looked at how democratic the less democratic mem- 
ber of the pair was the year before, on the assumption that even if a democratic 
state is war-averse, it still might be dragged into a war by a more belligerent 
(and perhaps less democratic) adversary. It hardly seems fair to penalize dem- 
ocratic Netherlands in 1940 for getting into a war with its German invaders, 
so the Netherlands-Germany pair in 1940 would be assigned the rock-bottom 
democracy score for Germany in 1939. 

To circumvent the temptation of data snooping when deciding whether a 
state was democratic, especially states that call themselves "democracies" on 
the basis of farcical elections, Russett and Oneal got their numbers from the 
Polity Project, which assigns each country a democracy score from o to 10 
based on how competitive its political process is, how openly its leader is cho- 
sen, and how many constraints are placed on the leader's power. The research- 
ers also threw into the pot some variables that are expected to affect military 
disputes through sheer realpolitik: whether a pair of countries were in a formal 
alliance (since allies are less likely to fight); whether one of them is a great 
power (since great powers tend to find trouble); and if neither is a great power, 
whether one is considerably more powerful than the other (because states fight 
less often when they are mismatched and the outcome would be a foregone 

So are democracies less likely to get into militarized disputes, all else held 
constant? The answer was a clear yes. When the less democratic member of a 
pair was a full autocracy, it doubled the chance that they would have a quarrel 
compared to an average pair of at-risk countries. When both countries were 
fully democratic, the chance of a dispute fell by more than half. 226 

In fact, the Democratic Peace theory did even better than its advocates 
hoped. Not only do democracies avoid disputes with each other, but there is 
a suggestion that they tend to stay out of disputes across the board. 227 And the 
reason they don't fight each other is not just that they are birds of a feather: 
there is no Autocratic Peace, a kind of honor among thieves in which autocra- 
cies also avoid disputes with each other. 228 The Democratic Peace held not only 
over the entire 115 years spanned by the dataset but also in the subspans from 
1900 to 1939 and from 1989 to 2001. That shows that the Democratic Peace is 
not a by-product of a Pax Americana during the Cold War. 229 In fact, there were 
never any signs of a Pax Americana or a Pax Britannica: the years when one 
of these countries was the world's dominant military power were no more 


peaceful than the years in which it was just one power among many. 230 Nor 
was there any sign that new democracies are stroppy exceptions to the Dem- 
ocratic Peace — just think of the Baltic and Central European countries that 
embraced democracy after the Soviet empire collapsed, and the South Amer- 
ican countries that shook off their military juntas in the 1970s and 1980s, none 
of which subsequently went to war. 231 Russett and Oneal found only one 
restriction on the Democratic Peace: it kicked in only around 1900, as one might 
have expected from the plethora of 19th-century counterexamples. 232 

So the Democratic Peace came out of a tough test in good shape. But that 
does not mean we should all be freedom guys and try to impose democratic 
governments on every autocracy we can invade. Democracy is not completely 
exogenous to a society; it is not a list of procedures for the workings of govern- 
ment from which every other good follows. It is woven into a fabric of civilized 
attitudes that includes, most prominently, a renunciation of political violence. 
England and the United States, recall, had prepared the ground for their 
democracies when their political leaders and their opponents had gotten out 
of the habit of murdering each other. Without this fabric, democracy brings 
no guarantee of internal peace. Though new and fragile democracies don't 
start interstate wars, in the next chapter we will see that they host more than 
their share of civil wars. 

Even when it comes to the aversion of democracies to interstate war, it is 
premature to anoint democracy as the first cause. Countries with democracy 
are beneficiaries of the happy end of the Matthew Effect, in which them that's 
got shall get and them that's not shall lose. Not only are democracies free of 
despots, but they are richer, healthier, better educated, and more open to inter- 
national trade and international organizations. To understand the Long Peace, 
we have to pry these influences apart. 


The Democratic Peace is sometimes considered a special case of a Liberal 
Peace — "liberal" in the sense of classical liberalism, with its emphasis on polit- 
ical and economic freedom, rather than left-liberalism. 233 The theory of the 
Liberal Peace embraces as well the doctrine of gentle commerce, according to 
which trade is a form of reciprocal altruism which offers positive-sum benefits 
for both parties and gives each a selfish stake in the well-being of the other. 
Robert Wright, who gave reciprocity pride of place in Nonzero, his treatise on 
the expansion of cooperation through history, put it this way: "Among the many 
reasons I think we shouldn't bomb the Japanese is that they made my minivan." 

The vogue word globalization reminds us that in recent decades international 
trade has mushroomed. Many exogenous developments have made trade 
easier and cheaper. They include transportation technologies such as the jet 
airplane and the container ship; electronic communication technologies such 


as the telex, long-distance telephone, fax, satellite, and Internet; trade agree- 
ments that have reduced tariffs and regulations; channels of international 
finance and currency exchange that make it easier for money to flow across 
borders; and the increased reliance of modern economies on ideas and infor- 
mation rather than on manual labor and physical stuff. 

History suggests many examples in which freer trade correlates with 
greater peace. The 18th century saw both a lull in war and an embrace of com- 
merce, when royal charters and monopolies began to give way to free markets, 
and when the beggar-thy-neighbor mindset of mercantilism gave way to the 
everybody-wins mindset of international trade. Countries that withdrew from 
the great power game and its attendant wars, such as the Netherlands in the 
18th century and Germany and Japan in the second half of the 20th, often 
channeled their national aspirations into becoming commercial powers 
instead. The protectionist tariffs of the 1930s led to a falloff in international 
trade and perhaps to a rise in international tensions. The current comity 
between the United States and China, which have little in common except a 
river of manufactured goods in one direction and dollars in the other, is a 
recent reminder of the irenic effects of trade. And rivaling the Democratic 
Peace theory as a categorical factoid about modern conflict prevention is the 
Golden Arches theory: no two countries with a McDonald's have ever fought 
in a war. The only unambiguous Big Mac Attack took place in 1999, when 
NATO briefly bombed Yugoslavia. 234 

Anecdotes aside, many historians are skeptical that trade, as a general rule, 
conduces to peace. In 1986, for example, John Gaddis wrote, "These are pleas- 
ant things to believe, but there is remarkably little historical evidence to vali- 
date them." 235 Certainly, enhancements in the infrastructure supporting trade 
were not sufficient to yield peace in ancient and medieval times. The tech- 
nologies that facilitated trade, such as ships and roads, also facilitated plunder, 
sometimes among the same itinerants, who followed the rule "If there are more 
of them, trade; if there are more of us, raid." 236 In later centuries, the profits 
to be gained from trade were so tempting that trade was sometimes imposed 
with gunboats on colonies and weak countries that resisted it, most infamously 
in the 19th-century Opium Wars, when Britain fought China to force it to allow 
British traffickers to sell the addictive drug within its borders. And great power 
wars often embroiled pairs of countries that had traded with each other a 
great deal. 

Norman Angell inadvertently set back the reputation of the trade-peace 
connection when he was seen as claiming that free trade had made war obso- 
lete and five years later World War I broke out. Skeptics like to rub it in by 
pointing out that the prewar years saw unprecedented levels of financial inter- 
dependence, including a large volume of trade between England and Ger- 
many. 237 And as Angell himself took pains to point out, the economic futility 
of war is a reason to avoid it only if nations are interested in prosperity in the 


first place. Many leaders are willing to sacrifice a bit of prosperity (often much 
more than a bit) to enhance national grandeur, to implement utopian ide- 
ologies, or to rectify what they see as historic injustices. Their citizenries, even 
in democracies, may go along with them. 

Russett and Oneal, the number-crunching defenders of the Democratic 
Peace, also sought to test the theory of the Liberal Peace, and they were skep- 
tical of the skeptics. They noted that though international trade hit a local peak 
just before World War I, it still was a fraction of the level, relative to gross 
domestic product, that countries would see after World War II (figure 5-24). 

Also, trade may work as a pacifying force only when it is underpinned by 
international agreements that prevent a nation from suddenly lurching toward 
protectionism and cutting off the air supply of its trading partners. Gat argues 
that around the turn of the 20th century, Britain and France were making 
noises about becoming imperial autarkies that would live off trade within 
their colonial empires. This sent Germany into a panic and gave its leaders 
the idea that it needed an empire too. 23 ® 

With examples and counterexamples on both sides, and the many statisti- 
cal confounds between trade and other good things (democracy, membership 
in international organizations, membership in alliances, and overall prosper- 
ity), it was time once again for multiple regression. For every pair of at-risk 
nations, Russett and Oneal entered the amount of trade (as a proportion of 
GDP) for the more trade-dependent member. They found that countries that 
depended more on trade in a given year were less likely to have a militarized 

FIGURE 5-24. International trade relative to GDP, 1885-2000 

Source: Graph from Russett, 2008, based on data from Gleditsch, 2002. 


dispute in the subsequent year, even controlling for democracy, power ratio, 
great power status, and economic growth . 239 Other studies have shown that 
the pacifying effects of trade depend on the countries' level of development: 
those that have access to the financial and technological infrastructure that 
lowers the cost of trade are most likely to resolve their disputes without dis- 
plays of military force . 240 This is consistent with the suggestions of Angell and 
Wright that broad historical changes have tilted financial incentives away 
from war and toward trade. 

Russett and Oneal found that it was not just the level of bilateral trade 
between the two nations in a pair that contributed to peace, but the dependence 
of each country on trade across the board: a country that is open to the global 
economy is less likely to find itself in a militarized dispute . 241 This invites a 
more expansive version of the theory of gentle commerce. International trade 
is just one facet of a country's commercial spirit. Others include an openness 
to foreign investment, the freedom of citizens to enter into enforceable con- 
tracts, and their dependence on voluntary financial exchanges as opposed to 
self-sufficiency, barter, or extortion. The pacifying effects of commerce in this 
broad sense appear to be even more robust than the pacifying effects of democ- 
racy. A democratic peace strongly kicks in only when both members of a pair 
of countries are democratic, but the effects of commerce are demonstrable 
when either member of the pair has a market economy . 242 

Such findings have led some political scientists to entertain a heretical idea 
called the Capitalist Peace . 243 The word liberal in Liberal Peace refers both to 
the political openness of democracy and to the economic openness of capital- 
ism, and according to the Capitalist Peace heresy, it's the economic openness 
that does most of the pacifying. In arguments that are sure to leave leftists 
speechless, advocates claim that many of Kant's arguments about democracy 
apply just as well to capitalism. Capitalism pertains to an economy that runs 
by voluntary contracts between citizens rather than government command 
and control, and that principle can bring some of the same advantages that 
Kant adduced for democratic republics. The ethic of voluntary negotiation 
within a country (like the ethic of law-governed transfer of power) is naturally 
externalized to its relationships with other countries. The transparency and 
intelligibility of a country with a free market economy can reassure its neigh- 
bors that it is not going on a war footing, which can defuse a Hobbesian trap 
and cramp a leader's freedom to engage in risky bluffing and brinkmanship. 
And whether or not a leader's power is constrained by the ballot box, in a 
market economy it is constrained by stakeholders who control the means of 
production and who might oppose a disruption of international trade that's 
bad for business. These constraints put a brake on a leader's personal ambition 
for glory, grandeur, and cosmic justice and on his temptation to respond to a 
provocation with a reckless escalation. 

Democracies tend to be capitalist and vice versa, but the correlation is 


imperfect: China, for example, is capitalist but autocratic, and India is demo- 
cratic but until recently was heavily socialist. Several political scientists have 
exploited this slippage and have pitted democracy and capitalism against each 
other in analyses of datasets of militarized disputes or other international 
crises. Like Russett and Oneal, they all find a clear pacifying effect of capital- 
ist variables such as international trade and openness to the global economy. 
But some of them disagree with the duo about whether democracy also makes 
a contribution to peace, once its correlation with capitalism is statistically 
removed. 244 So while the relative contributions of political and economic lib- 
eralism are currently mired in regression wonkery, the overarching theory of 
the Liberal Peace is on solid ground. 

The very idea of a Capitalist Peace is a shock to those who remember when 
capitalists were considered "merchants of death" and "masters of war." The 
irony was not lost on the eminent peace researcher Nils Petter Gleditsch, who 
ended his 2008 presidential address to the International Studies Association 
with an updating of the 1960s peace slogan: "Make money, not war." 245 


In the wake of World War II, leading thinkers were desperate to figure out 
what had gone wrong and tossed around a number of schemes for preventing 
a repeat performance. Mueller explains the most popular one: 

Some Western scientists, apparently consumed with guilt over having par- 
ticipated in the development of a weapon that could kill with new effi- 
ciency, . . . took time out from their laboratories and studies to consider 
human affairs. They quickly came to conclusions expressed with an evan- 
gelical certainty they would never have used in discussing the physical 
world. Although he had done his greatest work in physics while a citizen of 
the sovereign nation of Switzerland, Einstein proved as immune to the Swiss 
example as everyone else. "As long as there are sovereign nations possessing 
great power," he declared, "war is inevitable." . . . Fortunately, he and other 
scientists had managed to discover the one device that could solve the prob- 
lem. "Only the creation of a world government can prevent the impending 
self-destruction of mankind." 246 

World government seems like a straightforward extension of the logic of 
the Leviathan. If a national government with a monopoly on the use of force 
is the solution to the problem of homicide among individuals and of private 
and civil wars among factions, isn't a world government with a monopoly on 
the legitimate use of military force the solution to the problem of wars among 
nations? Most intellectuals did not go as far as Bertrand Russell, who in 1948 
proposed that the Soviet Union should be given an ultimatum that unless it 


immediately submitted to world government, the United States would attack 
it with nuclear weapons. 247 But world government was endorsed by, among 
others, Einstein, Wendell Willkie, Hubert Humphrey, Norman Cousins, Rob- 
ert Maynard Hutchins, and William O. Douglas. Many people thought world 
government would gradually emerge out of the United Nations. 

Today the campaign for world government lives on mainly among kooks 
and science fiction fans. One problem is that a functioning government relies 
on a degree of mutual trust and shared values among the people it governs 
which is unlikely to exist across the entire globe. Another is that a world gov- 
ernment would have no alternatives from which it could learn better gover- 
nance, or to which its disgruntled citizens could emigrate, and hence it would 
have no natural checks against stagnation and arrogance. And the United 
Nations is unlikely to morph into a government that anyone would want to be 
governed by. The Security Council is hamstrung by the veto power that the 
great powers insisted on before ceding it any authority, and the General Assem- 
bly is more of a soapbox for despots than a parliament of the world's people. 

In “Perpetual Peace," Kant envisioned a “federation of free states" that 
would fall well short of an international Leviathan. It would be a gradually 
expanding club of liberal republics rather than a global megagovernment, and 
it would rely on the soft power of moral legitimacy rather than on a monopoly 
on the use of force. The modern equivalent is the intergovernmental organiza- 
tion or IGO — a bureaucracy with a limited mandate to coordinate the policies 
of participating nations in some area in which they have a common interest. 
The international entity with the best track record for implementing world 
peace is probably not the United Nations, but the European Coal and Steel 
Community, an IGO founded in 1950 by France, West Germany, Belgium, the 
Netherlands, and Italy to oversee a common market and regulate the produc- 
tion of the two most important strategic commodities. The organization was 
specifically designed as a mechanism for submerging historic rivalries and 
ambitions — especially West Germany's — in a shared commercial enterprise. 
The Coal and Steel Community set the stage for the European Economic Com- 
munity, which in turn begot the European Union. 248 

Many historians believe that these organizations helped keep war out of 
the collective consciousness of Western Europe. By making national borders 
porous to people, money, goods, and ideas, they weakened the temptation of 
nations to fall into militant rivalries, just as the existence of the United States 
weakens any temptation of, say, Minnesota and Wisconsin to fall into a mili- 
tant rivalry. By throwing nations into a club whose leaders had to socialize 
and work together, they enforced certain norms of cooperation. By serving as 
an impartial judge, they could mediate disputes among member nations. And 
by holding out the carrot of a vast market, they could entice applicants to give 
up their empires (in the case of Portugal) or to commit themselves to liberal 
democracy (in the case of former Soviet satellites and, perhaps soon, Turkey). 249 


Russett and Oneal propose that membership in intergovernmental orga- 
nizations is the third vertex of a triangle of pacifying forces which they attri- 
bute to Kant, the other two being democracy and trade. (Though Kant did not 
single out trade in "Perpetual Peace," he extolled it elsewhere, so Russett and 
Oneal felt they could take some license in drawing their triangle.) The inter- 
national organizations needn't have utopian or even idealistic missions. They 
can coordinate defense, currency, postal service, tariffs, canal traffic, fishing 
rights, pollution, tourism, war crimes, weights and measures, road signs, 
anything — as long as they are voluntary associations of governments. Figure 
5-25 shows how membership in these organizations steadily increased during 
the 20th century, with a bump after World War II. 

To verify whether IGO membership made an independent contribution to 
peace, or just went along for the ride with democracy and trade, Russett and 
Oneal counted the number of IGOs that every pair of nations jointly belonged 
to, and they threw it into the regression analysis together with the democracy 
and trade scores and the realpolitik variables. The researchers concluded that 
Kant got it right three out of three times: democracy favors peace, trade favors 
peace, and membership in intergovernmental organizations favors peace. A 
pair of countries that are in the top tenth of the scale on all three variables are 
83 percent less likely than an average pair of countries to have a militarized 
dispute in a given year, which means the likelihood is very close to zero. 250 

Might Kant have been right in an even grander sense? Russett and Oneal 
defended the Kantian triangle with sophisticated correlations. But a causal 

FIGURE 5-25. Average number ofIGO memberships shared by a pair of countries, 1885-2000 

Source: Graph from Russett, 2008. 


story derived from correlational data is always vulnerable to the possibility 
that some hidden entity is the real cause of both the effect one is trying to 
explain and the variables one is using to explain it. In the case of the Kantian 
triangle, each putative pacifying agent may depend on a deeper and even more 
Kantian cause: a willingness to resolve conflicts by means that are acceptable 
to all the affected parties, rather than by the stronger party imposing its will 
on the weaker one. Nations become stable democracies only when their polit- 
ical factions tire of murder as the means of assigning power. They engage in 
commerce only when they put a greater value on mutual prosperity than on 
unilateral glory. And they join intergovernmental organizations only when 
they are willing to cede a bit of sovereignty for a bit of mutual benefit. In other 
words, by signing on to the Kantian variables, nations and their leaders are 
increasingly acting in such a way that the principle behind their actions can 
be made universal. Could the Long Peace represent the ascendancy in the 
international arena of the Categorical Imperative? 251 

Many scholars in international relations would snort at the very idea. 
According to an influential theory tendentiously called "realism," the absence 
of a world government consigns nations to a permanent state of Hobbesian 
anarchy. That means that leaders must act like psychopaths and consider only 
the national self-interest, unsoftened by sentimental (and suicidal) thoughts 
of morality. 252 

Realism is sometimes defended as a consequence of the existence of human 
nature, where the underlying theory of human nature is that people are self- 
interested rational animals. But as we shall see in chapters 8 and 9, humans 
are also moral animals: not in the sense that their behavior is moral in the light 
of disinterested ethical analysis, but in the sense that it is guided by moral 
intuitions supported by emotions, norms, and taboos. Humans are also cogni- 
tive animals, who spin out beliefs and use them to guide their actions. None 
of these endowments pushes our species toward peace by default. But it is 
neither sentimental nor unscientific to imagine that particular historical 
moments can engage the moral and cognitive faculties of leaders and their 
coalitions in a combination that inclines them toward peaceful coexistence. 
Perhaps the Long Peace is one of them. 

In addition to the three proximate Kantian causes, then, the Long Peace may 
depend on an ultimate Kantian cause. Norms among the influential constitu- 
encies in developed countries may have evolved to incorporate the conviction 
that war is inherently immoral because of its costs to human well-being, and 
that it can be justified only on the rare occasions when it is certain to prevent 
even greater costs to human well-being. If so, interstate war among developed 
countries would be going the way of customs such as slavery, serfdom, break- 
ing on the wheel, disemboweling, bearbaiting, cat-burning, heretic-burning, 
witch-drowning, thief-hanging, public executions, the display of rotting 
corpses on gibbets, dueling, debtors' prisons, flogging, keelhauling, and other 


practices that passed from unexceptionable to controversial to immoral to 
unthinkable to not-thought-about during the Humanitarian Revolution. 

Can we identify exogenous causes of the new humanitarian aversion to war 
among developed countries? In chapter 4 1 conjectured that the Humanitarian 
Revolution was accelerated by publishing, literacy, travel, science, and other 
cosmopolitan forces that broaden people's intellectual and moral horizons. The 
second half of the 20th century has obvious parallels. It saw the dawn of televi- 
sion, computers, satellites, telecommunications, and jet travel, and an unprec- 
edented expansion of science and higher education. The communications guru 
Marshall McLuhan called the postwar world a "global village." In a village, the 
fortunes of other people are immediately felt. If the village is the natural size 
of our circle of sympathy, then perhaps when the village goes global, the vil- 
lagers will experience greater concern for their fellow humans than when it 
embraced just the clan or tribe. A world in which a person can open the morn- 
ing paper and meet the eyes of a naked, terrified little girl running toward him 
from a napalm attack nine thousand miles away is not a world in which a writer 
can opine that war is "the foundation of all the high virtues and faculties of 
man" or that it "enlarges the mind of a people and raises their character." 

The end of the Cold War and the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire 
have also been linked to the easier movement of people and ideas at the end 
of the 20th century. 253 By the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet Union's attempt to 
retain its power by totalitarian control of media and travel was becoming a 
significant handicap. Not only was it becoming ludicrous for a modern econ- 
omy to do without photocopiers, fax machines, and personal computers (to 
say nothing of the nascent Internet), but it was impossible for the country's 
rulers to keep scientists and policy wonks from learning about the ideas in 
the increasingly prosperous West, or to keep the postwar generation from 
learning about rock music, blue jeans, and other perquisites of personal free- 
dom. Mikhail Gorbachev was a man of cosmopolitan tastes, and he installed 
in his administration many analysts who had traveled and studied in the West. 
The Soviet leadership made a verbal commitment to human rights in the 1975 
Helsinki Accords, and a cross-border network of human rights activists were 
trying to get the populace to hold them to it. Gorbachev's policy of glasnost 
(openness) allowed Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn's The Gulag Archipelago to be seri- 
alized in 1989, and it allowed debates in the Congress of People's Deputies to 
be televised, exposing millions of Russians to the brutality of the past Soviet 
leadership and the ineptitude of the current one. 254 Silicon chips, jet airplanes, 
and the electromagnetic spectrum were loosing ideas that helped to corrode 
the Iron Curtain. Though today's authoritarian China may seem to be strain- 
ing the hypothesis that technology and travel are liberalizing forces, its lead- 
ership is incomparably less murderous than Mao's insular regime, as the 
numbers in the next chapter will show. 

There may be another reason why antiwar sentiments finally took. The 


trajectory of violent deaths in Europe that we saw in figure 5-18 is a craggy 
landscape in which three pinnacles — the Wars of Religion, the French Revo- 
lutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and the two world wars — are followed by 
extended basins, each at a lower altitude than the preceding one. After each 
hemoclysm, world leaders tried, with some success, to make a recurrence less 
likely. Of course their treaties and concerts did not last forever, and an innu- 
merate reading of history may invite the conclusion that the days of the Long 
Peace are running out and that an even bigger war is waiting to be born. But 
the Poisson pitter-patter of war shows no periodicity, no cycle of buildup and 
release. Nothing prevents the world from learning from its mistakes and driv- 
ing the probability lower each time. 

Lars-Erik Cederman went back to Kant's essays and discovered a twist in 
his prescription for perpetual peace. Kant was under no illusion that national 
leaders were sagacious enough to deduce the conditions of peace from first 
principles; he realized they would need to learn them from bitter historical 
experience. In an essay called "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmo- 
politan Purpose," he wrote: 

Wars, tense and unremitting preparations, and the resultant distress which 
every state must eventually feel within itself, even in the midst of peace — 
these are the means by which nature drives nations to make initially imper- 
fect attempts, but finally, after many devastations, upheavals and even 
complete inner exhaustion of their powers, to take the step which reason 
could have suggested to them even without so many sad experiences — that 
of abandoning their lawless state of savagery. 255 

Cederman suggests that Kant's theory of peace-through-learning should 
be combined with his theory of peace-through-democracy. Though all states, 
including democracies, start off warlike (since many democracies began as 
great powers), and all states can be blindsided by sudden terrible wars, democ- 
racies may be better equipped to learn from their catastrophes, because of 
their openness to information and the accountability of their leaders. 256 

Cederman plotted the historical trajectory of militarized disputes from 1837 
to 1992 within pairs of democracies and other pairs of countries (figure 5-26). 
The inclined sawtooth for democracies shows that they started out warlike 
and thereafter underwent periodic shocks that sent their rate of disputes sky- 
ward. But after each peak their dispute rate quickly fell back to earth. Ceder- 
man also found that the learning curve was steeper for mature democracies 
than for newer ones. Autocracies too returned to more peaceable levels after 
the sudden shocks of major wars, but they did so more slowly and erratically. 
The fuzzy idea that after the 20th-century Hemoclysm an increasingly demo- 
cratic world "got tired of war" and "learned from its mistakes" may have some 
truth to it. 257 


FIGURE 5-26. Probability of militarized disputes between pairs ofdemocracies and other 
pairs of countries, 1825-1992 

Source: Graph from Cederman, 2001. The curves plot 20-year moving averages for at-risk pairs of 

A popular theme in the antiwar ballads of the 1960s was that evidence of 
the folly of war had always been available but that people stubbornly refused 
to see it. "How many deaths will it take till they learn that too many people 
have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind." "Where have all 
the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyards, every one. When will they ever learn?" 
After half a millennium of wars of dynasties, wars of religion, wars of sover- 
eignty, wars of nationalism, and wars of ideology, of the many small wars in 
the spine of the distribution and a few horrendous ones in the tail, the data 
suggest that perhaps, at last, we're learning. 


Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble — and his conscience devoured him. Yes, 
even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of 
Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no 


— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

Y ou would think that the disappearance of the gravest threat in the history 
of humanity would bring a sigh of relief among commentators on world 
affairs. Contrary to expert predictions, there was no invasion of Western 
Europe by Soviet tanks, no escalation of a crisis in Cuba or Berlin or the Mid- 
dle East to a nuclear holocaust. 1 The cities of the world were not vaporized; 
the atmosphere was not poisoned by radioactive fallout or choked with debris 
that blacked out the sun and sent Homo sapiens the way of the dinosaurs. Not 
only that, but a reunified Germany did not turn into a fourth reich, democracy 
did not go the way of monarchy, and the great powers and developed nations 
did not fall into a third world war but rather a long peace, which keeps getting 
longer. Surely the experts have been acknowledging the improvements in the 
world's fortunes from a few decades ago. 

But no — the pundits are glummer than ever! In 1989 John Gray foresaw "a 
return to the classical terrain of history, a terrain of great power rivalries . . . 
and irredentist claims and wars." 2 A New York Times editor wrote in 2007 that 
this return had already taken place: "It did not take long [after 1989] for the 
gyre to wobble back onto its dependably blood-soaked course, pushed along 
by fresh gusts of ideological violence and absolutism." 3 The political scientist 
Stanley Hoffman said that he has been discouraged from teaching his course 
on international relations because after the end of the Cold War, one heard 
"about nothing but terrorism, suicide bombings, displaced people, and geno- 
cides." 4 The pessimism is bipartisan: in 2007 the conservative writer Norman 
Podhoretz published a book called World War IV (on "the long struggle against 
Islamofascism"), while the liberal columnist Frank Rich wrote that the world 
was "a more dangerous place than ever." 5 If Rich is correct, then the world was 



more dangerous in 2007 than it was during the two world wars, the Berlin 
crises of 1949 and 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and all the wars in the Mid- 
dle East. That's pretty dangerous. 

Why the gloom? Partly it's the result of market forces in the punditry busi- 
ness, which favor the Cassandras over the Pollyannas. Partly it arises from 
human temperament: as David Hume observed, "The humour of blaming the 
present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature, and has 
an influence even on persons endowed with the profoundest judgment and 
most extensive learning." But mainly, I think, it comes from the innumeracy of 
our journalistic and intellectual culture. The journalist Michael Kinsley recently 
wrote, "It is a crushing disappointment that Boomers entered adulthood with 
Americans killing and dying halfway around the world, and now, as Boomers 
reach retirement and beyond, our country is doing the same damned thing." 6 
This assumes that 5,000 Americans dying is the same damned thing as 58,000 
Americans dying, and that a hundred thousand Iraqis being killed is the same 
damned thing as several million Vietnamese being killed. If we don't keep an 
eye on the numbers, the programming policy "If it bleeds it leads" will feed 
the cognitive shortcut "The more memorable, the more frequent," and we will 
end up with what has been called a false sense of insecurity. 7 

This chapter is about three kinds of organized violence that have stoked 
the new pessimism. They were given short shrift in the preceding chapter, 
which concentrated on wars among great powers and developed states. The 
Long Peace has not seen an end to these other kinds of conflict, leaving the 
impression that the world is "a more dangerous place than ever." 

The first kind of organized violence embraces all the other categories of 
war, most notably the civil wars and wars between militias, guerrillas, and 
paramilitaries that plague the developing world. These are the "new wars" or 
"low-intensity conflicts" that are said to be fueled by "ancient hatreds." 8 Famil- 
iar images of African teenagers with Kalashnikovs support the impression 
that the global burden of war has not declined but has only been displaced 
from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. 

The new wars are thought to be especially destructive to civilians because 
of the hunger and disease they leave in their wake, which are omitted from 
most counts of war dead. According to a widely repeated statistic, at the begin- 
ning of the 20th century 90 percent of war deaths were suffered by soldiers 
and 10 percent by civilians, but by the end of the century these proportions 
had reversed. Horrifying estimates of fatalities from famines and epidemics, 
rivaling the death toll of the Nazi Holocaust, have been reported in war-torn 
countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

The second kind of organized violence I will track is the mass killing of 
ethnic and political groups. The hundred-year period from which we have 
recently escaped has been called "the age of genocide" and "a century of geno- 
cide." Many commentators have written that ethnic cleansing emerged with 


modernity, was held at bay by the hegemony of the superpowers, returned with 
a vengeance with the end of the Cold War, and today is as prevalent as ever. 

The third is terrorism. Since the September n, 2001, attacks on the United 
States, the fear of terrorism has led to a massive new bureaucracy, two foreign 
wars, and obsessive discussion in the political arena. The threat of terrorism 
is said to pose an "existential threat" to the United States, having the capacity 
to "do away with our way of life" or to end "civilization itself." 9 

Each of these scourges, of course, continues to take a toll in human lives. 
The question I will ask in this chapter is exactly how big a toll, and whether it 
has increased or decreased in the past few decades. It's only recently that 
political scientists have tried to measure these kinds of destruction, and now 
that they have, they have reached a surprising conclusion: All these kinds of 
killing are in decline . 10 The decreases are recent enough — in the past two decades 
or less — that we cannot count on them lasting, and in recognition of their 
tentative nature I will call this development the New Peace. Nonetheless the 
trends are genuine declines of violence and deserve our careful attention. 
They are substantial in size, opposite in sign to the conventional wisdom, and 
suggestive of ways we might identify what went right and do more of it in the 


What was the rest of the world doing during the six hundred years when the 
great powers and European states went through their Ages of Dynasties, Reli- 
gions, Sovereignty, Nationalism, and Ideology; were racked by two world 
wars; and then fell into a long peace? Unfortunately the Eurocentric bias of 
the historical record makes it impossible to trace out curves with any confi- 
dence. Before the advent of colonialism, large swaths of Africa, the Americas, 
and Asia were host to predation, feuding, and slave-raiding that slunk beneath 
the military horizon or fell in the forest without any historian hearing them. 
Colonialism itself was implemented in many imperial wars that the great 
powers waged to acquire their colonies, suppress revolts, and fend off rivals. 
Throughout this era there were plenty of wars. For the period from 1400 
through 1938, Brecke's Conflict Catalog lists 276 violent conflicts in the Amer- 
icas, 283 in North Africa and the Middle East, 586 in sub-Saharan Africa, 313 
in Central and South Asia, and 657 in East and Southeast Asia. 11 Historical 
myopia prevents us from plotting trustworthy trends in the frequency or 
deadliness of the wars, but we saw in the preceding chapter that many were 
devastating. They included civil and interstate wars that were proportionally 
(and in some cases absolutely) more lethal than anything taking place in 
Europe, such as the American Civil War, the Taiping Rebellion in China, the 
War of the Triple Alliance in South America, and the conquests of Shaka Zulu 
in southern Africa. 


In 1946, just when Europe, the great powers, and the developed world 
started racking up their peaceful zeroes, the historical record for the world as 
a whole snaps into focus. That is the first year covered in a meticulous dataset 
compiled by Bethany Lacina, Nils Petter Gleditsch, and their colleagues at the 
Peace Research Institute of Oslo called the PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset. 12 The 
dataset includes every known armed conflict that killed as few as twenty-five 
people in a year. The conflicts that rise to the level of a thousand deaths a year 
are promoted to "wars," matching the definition used in the Correlates of War 
Project, but they are otherwise given no special treatment. (I will continue to 
use the word war in its nontechnical sense to refer to armed conflicts of all 

The PRIO researchers aim for criteria that are as reliable as possible, so that 
analysts can compare regions of the world and plot trends over time using a 
fixed yardstick. Without strict criteria — when analysts use direct battlefield 
deaths for some wars but include indirect deaths from epidemics and famines 
in others, or when they count army-against-army wars in some regions but 
throw in genocides in others — comparisons are meaningless and are too eas- 
ily used as propaganda for one cause or another. The PRIO analysts comb 
through histories, media stories, and reports from government and human 
rights organizations to tally deaths from war as objectively as possible. The 
counts are conservative; indeed, they are certainly underestimates, because 
they omit all deaths that are merely conjectured or whose causes cannot be 
ascertained with confidence. Similar criteria, and overlapping data, are used 
in other conflict datasets, including those of the Uppsala Conflict Data Project 
(UCDP), whose data begin in 1989; the Stockholm International Peace Research 
Institute (SIPRI), which uses adjusted UCDP data; and the Human Security 
Report Project (HSRP), which draws on both the PRIO and UCDP datasets. 13 

Like Lewis Richardson, the new conflict-counters have to deal with failures 
of thinginess, and so they divide the conflicts into categories using obsessive- 
compulsive criteria. 14 The first cut distinguishes three kinds of mass violence 
that vary in their causes and, just as importantly, in their countability. The 
concept of "war" (and its milder version, "armed conflict") applies most natu- 
rally to multiple killing that is organized and socially legitimated. That invites 
a definition in which a "war" must have a government on at least one side, 
and the two sides must be contesting some identifiable resource, usually a 
territory or the machinery of government. To make this clear, the datasets call 
wars in this narrow sense "state-based armed conflicts," and they are the only 
conflicts for which data go all the way back to 1946. 

The second category embraces "nonstate" or "intercommunal" conflict, and 
it pits warlords, militias, or paramilitaries (often aligned with ethnic or reli- 
gious groups) against each other. 

The third category has the clinical name "one-sided violence" and embraces 
genocides, politicides, and other massacres of unarmed civilians, whether 


perpetrated by governments or by militias. The exclusion of one-sided violence 
from the PRIO dataset is in part a tactical choice to divide violence into catego- 
ries with different causes, but it is also a legacy of historians' long-standing 
fascination with war at the expense of genocide, which only recently has been 
recognized as more destructive of human life. 15 Rudolph Rummel, the politi- 
cal scientist Barbara Harff, and the UCDP have collected datasets of genocides, 
which we will examine in the next section. 16 

The first of the three categories, state-based conflicts, is then subdivided 
according to whom the government is fighting. The prototypical war is the 
interstate war, which pits two states against each other, such as the Iran-Iraq 
War of 1980-88. Then there are extrastate or extrasystemic wars, in which a gov- 
ernment wages war on an entity outside its borders that is not a recognized 
state. These are generally imperial wars, in which a state fights indigenous 
forces to acquire a colony, or colonial wars, in which it fights to retain one, such 
as France in Algeria from 1954 to 1962. 

Finally there are civil or intrastate wars, in which the government fights an 
insurrection, rebellion, or secessionist movement. These are further subdi- 
vided into civil wars that are completely internal (such as the recently con- 
cluded war in Sri Lanka between the government and the Tamil Tigers) and 
the internationalized intrastate wars in which a foreign army intervenes, usually 
to help a government defend itself against the rebels. The wars in Afghanistan 
and Iraq both began as interstate conflicts (the United States and its allies 
against Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and the United States and its 
allies against Baathist-controlled Iraq), but as soon as the governments were 
toppled and the invading armies remained in the country to support the new 
governments against insurgencies, the conflicts were reclassified as interna- 
tionalized intrastate conflicts. 

Now there's the question of which deaths to count. The PRIO and UCDP 
datasets tally direct or battle-related deaths — the people who are shot, stabbed, 
clubbed, gassed, blown up, drowned, or deliberately starved as part of a con- 
test in which the perpetrators themselves have to worry about getting hurt. 17 
The victims maybe soldiers, or they may be civilians who were caught in the 
crossfire or killed in "collateral damage." The battle-related death statistics 
exclude indirect deaths arising from disease, starvation, stress, and the break- 
down of infrastructure. When indirect deaths are added to direct deaths to 
yield the entire toll attributable to the war, the sum may be called excess deaths. 

Why do the datasets exclude indirect deaths? It's not to write these kinds of 
suffering out of the history books, but because direct deaths are the only ones 
that can be counted with confidence. Direct deaths also conform to our basic 
intuition of what it means for an agent to be responsible for an effect that it 
causes, namely that the agent foresees the effect, intends for it to happen, and 
makes it happen via a chain of events that does not have too many uncontrol- 
lable intervening links. 18 The problem with estimating indirect deaths is that it 


requires us to undertake the philosophical exercise of simulating in our imag- 
ination the possible world in which the war didn't occur and estimating the 
number of deaths that took place in that world, which then is used as a baseline. 
And that requires something close to omniscience. Would a postwar famine 
have taken place even if the war had not broken out because of the ineptitude 
of the overthrown government? What if there was a drought that year — should 
the famine deaths be blamed on the war or on the weather? If the rate of death 
from hunger was going down in the years before a war, should we assume that 
it would have declined even further if the war hadn't occurred, or should we 
freeze it at its level in the last year before the war? If Saddam Hussein had not 
been deposed, would he have gone on to kill more political enemies than the 
number of people who died in the intercommunal violence following his defeat? 
Should we add the 40 to 50 million victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic to 
the 15 million who were killed in World War I, because the flu virus would 
not have evolved its virulence if the war hadn't packed so many troops into 
trenches? 19 Estimating indirect deaths requires answering these sorts of ques- 
tions in a consistent way for hundreds of conflicts, an impossible undertaking. 

Wars, in general, tend to be destructive in many ways at once, and the ones 
that kill more people on the battlefield also generally lead to more deaths from 
famine, disease, and the disruption of services. To the extent that they do, 
trends in battle deaths can serve as a proxy for trends in overall destructive- 
ness. But they don't in every case, and later in the chapter we will ask whether 
developing nations, with their fragile infrastructure, are more vulnerable to 
knock-on effects than advanced nations, and whether this ratio has changed 
over time, making battle deaths a misleading index of trends in the human 
toll of conflict. 

Now that we have the precision instrument of conflict datasets, what do they 
tell us about the recent trajectory of war in the entire world? Let's begin with 
the bird's-eye view of the 20th century in figure 6-1. The viewing was arranged 
by Lacina, Gleditsch, and Russett, who retrofitted numbers from the Correlates 
of War Project from 1900 to 1945 to the PRIO dataset from 1946 to 2005, and 
divided the numbers by the size of the world's population, to yield an indi- 
vidual's risk of dying in battle over the century. 

The graph reminds us of the freakish destructiveness of the two world wars. 
They were not steps on a staircase, or swings of a pendulum, but massive 
spikes poking through a bumpy lowland. The drop-off in the rate of battle 
deaths after the early 1940s (peaking at 300 per 100,000 people per year) has 
been precipitous; the world has seen nothing close to that level since. 

Eagle-eyed readers will spot a decline within the decline, from some small 
peaks in the immediate postwar decade to the low-lying flats of today. Let's 
zoom in on this trend in figure 6-2, while also subdividing the battle deaths 
according to the type of war that caused them. 


FIGURE 6-i. Rate of battle deaths in state-based armed conflicts, 1900-2005 

Source: Graph from Russett, 2008, based on Lacina, Gleditsch, & Russett, 2006. 

FIGURE 6-2. Rate of battle deaths in state-based armed conflicts, 1946-2008 
Civilian and military battle deaths in state-based armed conflicts, divided by world population. 
Sources: UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset; see Human Security Report Project, 2007, based on 
data from Lacina & Gleditsch, 2005, updated in 2010 by Tara Cooper. “Best" estimate used when 
available; otherwise the geometric mean of the "High" and "Low" estimates is used. World popula- 
tion figures from U.S. Census Bureau, 2010c. Population data for 1946-49 were taken from McEvedy 
& Jones, 1978, and multiplied by 1.01 to make them commensurable with the rest. 


This is an area graph, in which the thickness of each layer represents the 
rate of battle deaths for a particular kind of state-based conflict, and the height 
of the stack of layers represents the rate for all the conflicts combined. First take 
a moment to behold the overall shape of the trajectory. Even after we have 
lopped off the massive ski-jump from World War II, no one could miss another 
steep falloff in the rate of getting killed in battle that has taken place over the 
past sixty years, with a paper-thin laminate for the first decade of the 21st cen- 
tury at the end. This period, even with thirty-one ongoing conflicts in that 
mid-decade (including Iraq, Afghanistan, Chad, Sri Lanka, and Sudan), enjoyed 
an astoundingly low rate of battle deaths: around 0.5 per 100,000 per year, fall- 
ing below the homicide rate of even the world's most peaceable societies. 20 The 
figures, granted, are lowballs, since they include only reported battle deaths, 
but that is true for the entire time series. And even if we were to multiply the 
recent figures by five, they would sit well below the world's overall homicide 
rate of 8.8 per 100,000 per year. 21 In absolute numbers, annual battle deaths have 
fallen by more than 90 percent, from around half a million per year in the late 
1940s to around thirty thousand a year in the early 2000s. So believe it or not, 
from a global, historical, and quantitative perspective, the dream of the 1960s 
folk songs has come true: the world has (almost) put an end to war. 

Let's take our jaws off the table and look more closely at what happened 
category by category. We can start with the pale patch at the bottom left, which 
represents a kind of war that has vanished off the face of the earth: the 
extrastate or colonial war. Wars in which a great power tried to hang on to a 
colony could be extremely destructive, such as France's attempts to retain 
Vietnam between 1946 and 1954 (375,000 battle deaths) and Algeria between 
1954 and 1962 (182,500 battle deaths). 22 After what has been called "the greatest 
transfer of power in world history," this kind of war no longer exists. 

Now look at the black layer, for wars between states. It is bunched up in three 
large patches, each thinner than its predecessor: one which includes the Korean 
War from 1950 to 1953 (a million battle deaths spread over four years), one which 
includes the Vietnam War from 1962 to 1975 (1.6 million battle deaths spread over 
fourteen years), and one which includes the Iran-Iraq War (645,000 battle deaths 
spread over nine years). 23 Since the end of the Cold War, there have been only 
two significant interstate wars: the first Gulf War, with 23,000 battle deaths, and 
the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, with 50,000. By the first decade 
of the new millennium, interstate wars had become few in number, mostly brief, 
and relatively low in battle deaths (India-Pakistan and Eritrea-Djibouti, neither 
of which counts as a "war" in the technical sense of having a thousand deaths a 
year, and the quick overthrow of the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq). In 2004, 
2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009, there were no interstate conflicts at all. 

The Long Peace — an avoidance of major war among great powers and 
developed states — is spreading to the rest of the world. Aspiring great powers 
no longer feel the need to establish their greatness by acquiring an empire or 


picking on weaker countries: China boasts of its "peaceful rise" and Turkey 
of a policy it calls "zero problems with neighbors"; Brazil's foreign minister 
recently crowed, "I don't think there are many countries that can boast that 
they have 10 neighbors and haven't had a war in the last 140 years." 24 And East 
Asia seems to be catching Europe's distaste for war. Though in the decades 
after World War II it was the world's bloodiest region, with ruinous wars in 
China, Korea, and Indochina, from 1980 to 1993 the number of conflicts and 
their toll in battle deaths plummeted, and they have remained at historically 
unprecedented lows ever since. 25 

As interstate war was being snuffed out, though, civil wars began to flare 
up. We see this in the enormous dark gray wedge at the left of figure 6-2, 
mainly representing the 1.2 million battle deaths in the 1946-50 Chinese Civil 
War, and a fat lighter gray bulge at the top of the stack in the 1980s, which 
contains the 435,000 battle deaths in the Soviet Union-bolstered civil war in 
Afghanistan. And snaking its way through the 1980s and 1990s, we find a 
continuation of the dark gray layer with a mass of smaller civil wars in coun- 
tries such as Angola, Bosnia, Chechnya, Croatia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Gua- 
temala, Iraq, Liberia, Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Uganda. 
But even this slice tapers down in the 2000s to a slender layer. 

To get a clearer picture of what the numbers here are telling us, it helps to 
disaggregate the death tolls into the two main dimensions of war: how many 
there were, and how lethal each kind was. Figure 6-3 shows the raw totals of 

FIGURE 6-3. Number of state-based armed conflicts, 1946-2009 

Sources: UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset; see Human Security Report Project, 2007, based on 
data from Lacina & Gleditsch, 2005, updated in 2010 by Tara Cooper. 


the conflicts of each kind, disregarding their death tolls, which, recall, can be 
as low as twenty-five. As colonial wars disappeared and interstate wars were 
petering out, internationalized civil wars vanished for a brief instant at the 
end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the United States stopped 
supporting their client states, and then reappeared with the policing wars in 
Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. But the big news was an explo- 
sion in the number of purely internal civil wars that began around i960, 
peaked in the early 1990s, and then declined through 2003, followed by a slight 

Why do the sizes of the patches look so different in the two graphs? It's 
because of the power-law distribution for wars, in which a small number of 
wars in the tail of the L-shaped distribution are responsible for a large percent- 
age of the deaths. More than half of the 9.4 million battle deaths in the 260 
conflicts between 1946 and 2008 come from just five wars, three of them 
between states (Korea, Vietnam, Iran-Iraq) and two within states (China and 
Afghanistan). Most of the downward trend in the death toll came from reeling 
in that thick tail, leaving fewer of the really destructive wars. 

In addition to the differences in the contributions of wars of different sizes 
to the overall death tolls, there are substantial differences in the contributions 
of the wars of different kinds. Figure 6-4 shows the second dimension of war, 
how many people an average war kills. 

FIGURE 6-4. Deadliness of interstate and civil wars, 1950-2005 

Sources: UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset, Lacina & Gleditsch, 2005; adapted by the Human 
Security Report Project; Human Security Centre, 2006. 


Until recently the most lethal kind of war by far was the interstate war. There 
is nothing like a pair of Leviathans amassing cannon fodder, lobbing artillery 
shells, and pulverizing each other's cities to rack up truly impressive body 
counts. A distant second and third are the wars in which a Leviathan projects 
its might in some other part of the world to prop up a beleaguered govern- 
ment or keep a grip on its colonies. Pulling up the rear are the internal civil 
wars, which, at least since the Chinese slaughterhouse in the late 1940s, have 
been far less deadly. When a gang of Kalashnikov-toting rebels harasses the 
government in a small country that the great powers don't care about, the 
damage they do is more limited. And even these fatality rates have decreased 
over the past quarter-century. 26 In 1950 the average armed conflict (of any 
kind) killed thirty-three thousand people; in 2007 it killed less than a thou- 
sand. 27 

How can we make sense of the juddering trajectory of conflict since the end 
of World War II, easing into the lull of the New Peace? One major change has 
been in the theater of armed conflict. Wars today take place mainly in poor 
countries, mostly in an arc that extends from Central and East Africa through 
the Middle East, across Southwest Asia and northern India, and down into 
Southeast Asia. Figure 6-5 shows ongoing conflicts in 2008 as black dots, and 
shades in the countries containing the "bottom billion," the people with the 
lowest income. About half of the conflicts take place in the countries with the 
poorest sixth of the people. In the decades before 2000, conflicts were scattered 
in other poor parts of the world as well, such as Central America and West 
Africa. Neither the economic nor the geographic linkage with war is a constant 
of history. Recall that for half a millennium the wealthy countries of Europe 
were constantly at each other's throats. 

The relation between poverty and war in the world today is smooth but 
highly nonlinear. Among wealthy countries in the developed world, the risk 
of civil war is essentially zero. For countries with a per capita gross domestic 
product of around $1,500 a year (in 2003 U.S. dollars), the probability of a new 
conflict breaking out within five years rises to around 3 percent. But from there 
downward the risk shoots up: for countries with a per capita GDP of $750, it 
is 6 percent; for countries whose people earn $500, it is 8 percent; and for those 
that subsist on $250, it is 15 percent. 28 

A simplistic interpretation of the correlation is that poverty causes war 
because poor people have to fight for survival over a meager pool of resources. 
Though undoubtedly some conflicts are fought over access to water or arable 
land, the connection is far more tangled than that. 29 For starters, the causal 
arrow also goes in the other direction. War causes poverty, because it's hard 
to generate wealth when roads, factories, and granaries are blown up as fast 
as they are built and when the most skilled workers and managers are con- 
stantly being driven from their workplaces or shot. War has been called 

306 the better angels of our nature 

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"development in reverse," and the economist Paul Collier has estimated that 
a typical civil war costs the afflicted country $50 billion. 30 

Also, neither wealth nor peace comes from having valuable stuff in the 
ground. Many poor and war-torn African countries are overflowing with gold, 
oil, diamonds, and strategic metals, while affluent and peaceable countries 
such as Belgium, Singapore, and Hong Kong have no natural resources to 
speak of. There must be a third variable, presumably the norms and skills of 
a civilized trading society, that causes both wealth and peace. And even if 
poverty does cause conflict, it may do so not because of competition over scarce 
resources but because the most important thing that a little wealth buys a 
country is an effective police force and army to keep domestic peace. The fruits 
of economic development flow far more to a government than to a guerrilla 
force, and that is one of the reasons that the economic tigers of the developing 
world have come to enjoy a state of relative tranquillity. 31 

Whatever effects poverty may have, measures of it and of other "structural 
variables," like the youth and maleness of a country's demographics, change 
too slowly to fully explain the recent rise and fall of civil war in the develop- 
ing world. 32 Their effects, though, interact with the country's form of gover- 
nance. The thickening of the civil war wedge in the 1960s had an obvious 
trigger: decolonization. European governments may have brutalized the 
natives when conquering a colony and putting down revolts, but they gener- 
ally had a fairly well-functioning police, judiciary, and public-service infra- 
structure. And while they often had their pet ethnic groups, their main concern 
was controlling the colony as a whole, so they enforced law and order fairly 
broadly and in general did not let one group brutalize another with too much 
impunity. When the colonial governments departed, they took competent 
governance with them. A similar semianarchy burst out in parts of Central 
Asia and the Balkans in the 1990s, when the communist federations that had 
ruled them for decades suddenly unraveled. One Bosnian Croat explained 
why ethnic violence erupted only after the breakup of Yugoslavia: "We lived 
in peace and harmony because every hundred meters we had a policeman to 
make sure we loved each other very much." 33 

Many of the governments of the newly independent colonies were run by 
strongmen, kleptocrats, and the occasional psychotic. They left large parts 
of their countries in anarchy, inviting the predation and gang warfare we 
saw in Polly Wiessner's account of the decivilizing process in New Guinea in 
chapter 3. They siphoned tax revenue to themselves and their clans, and their 
autocracies left the frozen-out groups no hope for change except by coup or 
insurrection. They responded erratically to minor disorders, letting them build 
up and then sending death squads to brutalize entire villages, which only 
inflamed the opposition further. 34 Perhaps an emblem for the era was Jean- 
Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Empire, the name he gave to the small 
country formerly called the Central African Republic. Bokassa had seventeen 

308 the better angels of our nature 

wives, personally carved up (and according to rumors, occasionally ate) his 
political enemies, had schoolchildren beaten to death when they protested 
expensive mandatory uniforms bearing his likeness, and crowned himself 
emperor in a ceremony (complete with a gold throne and diamond-studded 
crown) that cost one of the world's poorest countries a third of its annual 

During the Cold War many tyrants stayed in office with the blessing of the 
great powers, who followed the reasoning of Franklin Roosevelt about Nicara- 
gua's Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." 35 
The Soviet Union was sympathetic to any regime it saw as advancing the world- 
wide communist revolution, and the United States was sympathetic to any 
regime that kept itself out of the Soviet orbit. Other great powers such as France 
tried to stay on the good side of any regime that would supply them with oil and 
minerals. The autocrats were armed and financed by one superpower, insur- 
rectionists who fought them were armed by the other, and both patrons were 
more interested in seeing their client win than in seeing the conflict come to an 
end. Figure 6-3 reveals a second expansion of civil wars around 1973, when Por- 
tugal dismantled its colonial empire and the American defeat in Vietnam 
emboldened insurrections elsewhere in the world. The number of civil wars 
peaked at fifty-one in 1991, which, not coincidentally, is the year the Soviet Union 
went out of existence, taking the Cold War-stoked proxy conflicts with it. 

Only a fifth of the decline in conflicts, though, can be attributed to the dis- 
appearance of proxy wars. 36 The end of communism removed another source 
of fuel to world conflict: it was the last of the antihumanist, struggle-glorifying 
creeds in Luard's Age of Ideologies (we'll look at a new one, Islamism, later in 
this chapter). Ideologies, whether religious or political, push wars out along 
the tail of the deadliness distribution because they inflame leaders into trying 
to outlast their adversaries in destructive wars of attrition, regardless of the 
human costs. The three deadliest postwar conflicts were fueled by Chinese, 
Korean, and Vietnamese communist regimes that had a fanatical dedication 
to outlasting their opponents. Mao Zedong in particular was not embarrassed 
to say that the lives of his citizens meant nothing to him: “We have so many 
people. We can afford to lose a few. What difference does it make?" 37 On one 
occasion he quantified "a few" — 300 million people, or half the country's pop- 
ulation at the time. He also stated that he was willing to take an equivalent 
proportion of humanity with him in the cause: "If the worse came to the worst 
and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism 
would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist." 38 

As for China's erstwhile comrades in Vietnam, much has been written, 
often by the chastened decision-makers themselves, about the American mis- 
calculations in that war. The most fateful was their underestimation of the 
ability of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to absorb casualties. As the 
war unfolded, American strategists like Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara 


were incredulous that a backward country like North Vietnam could resist 
the most powerful army on earth, and they were always confident that the 
next escalation would force it to capitulate. As John Mueller notes: 

If battle death rate as a percentage of pre-war population is calculated for 
each of the hundreds of countries that have participated in international 
and colonial wars since 1816, it is apparent that Vietnam was an extreme 
case. . . . The Communist side accepted battle death rates that were about 
twice as high as those accepted by the fanatical, often suicidal, Japanese in 
World War II, for example. Furthermore, the few combatant countries that 
did experience loss rates as high as that of the Vietnamese Communists were 
mainly those such as the Germans and Soviets in World War II, who were 
fighting to the death for their national existence, not for expansion like the 
North Vietnamese. In Vietnam, it seems, the United States was up against 
an incredibly well-functioning organization — patient, firmly disciplined, 
tenaciously led, and largely free from corruption or enervating self- 
indulgence. Although the communists often experienced massive military 
setbacks and periods of stress and exhaustion, they were always able to refit 
themselves, rearm, and come back for more. It may well be that, as one 
American general put it, "they were in fact the best enemy we have faced in 
our history." 39 

Ho Chi Minh was correct when he prophesied, "Kill ten of our men and we 
will kill one of yours. In the end, it is you who will tire." The American democ- 
racy was willing to sacrifice a tiny fraction of the lives that the North Viet- 
namese dictator was willing to forfeit (no one asked the proverbial ten men 
how they felt about this), and the United States eventually conceded the war 
of attrition despite having every other advantage. But by the 1980s, as China 
and Vietnam were changing from ideological to commercial states and easing 
their reigns of terror over their populations, they were less willing to inflict 
comparable losses in unnecessary wars. 

A world that is less invigorated by honor, glory, and ideology and more 
tempted by the pleasures of bourgeois life is a world in which fewer people 
are killed. After Georgia lost a five-day war with Russia in 2008 over control 
of the tiny territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's president 
Mikheil Saakashvili explained to a New York Times writer why he decided not 
to organize an insurgency against the occupation: 

We had a choice here. We could turn this country into Chechnya — we had 
enough people and equipment to do that — or we had to do nothing and stay 
a modern European country. Eventually we would have chased them away, 
but we would have had to go to the mountains and grow beards. That would 
have been a tremendous national philosophical and emotional burden. 40 


The explanation was melodramatic, even disingenuous — Russia had no inten- 
tion of occupying Georgia — but it does capture one of the choices in the devel- 
oping world that lies behind the New Peace: go to the mountains and grow 
beards, or do nothing and stay a modern country. 

Other than the end of the Cold War and the decline of ideology, what led to 
the mild reduction in the number of civil wars during the past two decades, 
and the steep reduction in battle deaths of the last one? And why do conflicts 
persist in the developing world (thirty-six in 2008, all but one of them civil 
wars) when they have essentially disappeared in the developed world? 

A good place to start is the Kantian triangle of democracy, open economies, 
and engagement with the international community. Russett and Oneal's statis- 
tical analyses, described in the preceding chapter, embrace the entire world, but 
they include only disputes between states. How well does the triad of pacifying 
factors apply to civil wars within developing countries, where most of today's 
conflicts take place? Each variable, it turns out, has an important twist. 

One might think that if a lot of democracy is a good thing in inhibiting war, 
then a little democracy is still better than none. But with civil wars it doesn't 
work that way. Earlier in the chapter (and in chapter 3, when we examined 
homicide across the world), we came across the concept of anocracy, a form of 
rule that is neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. 41 Anocracies are also 
known among political scientists as semidemocracies, praetorian regimes, 
and (my favorite, overheard at a conference) crappy governments. These are 
administrations that don't do anything well. Unlike autocratic police states, 
they don't intimidate their populations into quiescence, but nor do they have 
the more-or-less fair systems of law enforcement of a decent democracy. 
Instead they often respond to local crime with indiscriminate retaliation on 
entire communities. They retain the kleptocratic habits of the autocracies from 
which they evolved, doling out tax revenues and patronage jobs to their clans- 
men, who then extort bribes for police protection, favorable verdicts in court, 
or access to the endless permits needed to get anything done. A government 
job is the only ticket out of squalor, and having a clansman in power is the 
only ticket to a government job. When control of the government is periodi- 
cally up for grabs in a "democratic election," the stakes are as high as in any 
contest over precious and indivisible spoils. Clans, tribes, and ethnic groups 
try to intimidate each other away from the ballot box and then fight to overturn 
an outcome that doesn't go their way. According to the Global Report on Conflict, 
Governance, and State Fragility, anocracies are "about six times more likely than 
democracies and two and one-half times as likely as autocracies to experience 
new outbreaks of societal wars" such as ethnic civil wars, revolutionary wars, 
and coups d'etat. 42 

Figure 5-23 in the preceding chapter shows why the vulnerability of anoc- 
racies to violence has become a problem. As the number of autocracies in the 


world began to decline in the late 1980s, the number of anocracies began to 
increase. Currently they are distributed in a crescent from Central Africa 
through the Middle East and West and South Asia that largely coincides with 
the war zones in figure 6 -5- 43 

The vulnerability to civil war of countries in which control of the govern- 
ment is a winner-take-all jackpot is multiplied when the government controls 
windfalls like oil, gold, diamonds, and strategic minerals. Far from being a 
blessing, these bonanzas create the so-called resource curse, also known as 
the paradox of plenty and fool's gold. Countries with an abundance of nonre- 
newable, easily monopolized resources have slower economic growth, crappier 
governments, and more violence. As the Venezuelan politician Juan Perez 
Alfonzo put it, "Oil is the devil's excrement." 44 A country can be accursed by 
these resources because they concentrate power and wealth in the hands of 
whoever monopolizes them, typically a governing elite but sometimes a 
regional warlord. The leader becomes obsessed with fending off rivals for his 
cash cow and has no incentive to foster the networks of commerce that enrich 
a society and knit it together in reciprocal obligations. Collier, together with 
the economist Dambisa Moyo and other policy analysts, has called attention 
to a related paradox. Foreign aid, so beloved of crusading celebrities, can be 
another poisoned chalice, because it can enrich and empower the leaders 
through whom it is funneled rather than building a sustainable economic 
infrastructure. Expensive contraband like coca, opium, and diamonds is a 
third curse, because it opens a niche for cutthroat politicians or warlords to 
secure the illegal enclaves and distribution channels. 

Collier observes that "the countries at the bottom coexist with the 21st cen- 
tury, but their reality is the 14th century: civil war, plague, ignorance." 45 The 
analogy to that calamitous century, which stood on the verge of the Civilizing 
Process before the consolidation of effective governments, is apt. In The Rem- 
nants of War, Mueller notes that most armed conflict in the world today no 
longer consists of campaigns for territory by professional armies. It consists 
instead of plunder, intimidation, revenge, and rape by gangs of unemployable 
young men serving warlords or local politicians, much like the dregs rounded 
up by medieval barons for their private wars. As Mueller puts it: 

Many of these wars have been labeled "new war," "ethnic conflict," or, most 
grandly, "clashes of civilizations." But in fact, most, though not all, are more 
nearly opportunistic predation by packs, often remarkably small ones, of 
criminals, bandits, and thugs. They engage in armed conflict either as mer- 
cenaries hired by desperate governments or as independent or semi- 
independent warlord or brigand bands. The damage perpetrated by these 
entrepreneurs of violence, who commonly apply ethnic, nationalist, civili- 
zational, or religious rhetoric, can be extensive, particularly to the citizens 
who are their chief prey, but it is scarcely differentiable from crime. 46 


Mueller cites eyewitness reports that confirm that the infamous civil wars 
and genocides of the 1990s were largely perpetrated by gangs of drugged or 
drunken hooligans, including those in Bosnia, Colombia, Croatia, East Timor, 
Kosovo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and other coun- 
tries in the African-Asian conflict crescent. Mueller describes some of the 
"soldiers" in the 1989-96 Liberian Civil War: 

Combatants routinely styled themselves after heroes in violent American 
action movies like Rarnbo, Terminator, and Jungle Killer, and many went under 
such fanciful noms de guerre as Colonel Action, Captain Mission Impos- 
sible, General Murder, Young Colonel Killer, General Jungle King, Colonel 
Evil Killer, General War Boss III, General Jesus, Major Trouble, General Butt 
Naked, and, of course. General Rambo. Particularly in the early years, rebels 
decked themselves out in bizarre, even lunatic attire: women's dresses, wigs, 
and pantyhose; decorations composed of human bones; painted fingernails; 
even (perhaps in only one case) headgear made of a flowery toilet seat. 47 

The political scientists James Fearon and David Laitin have backed up such 
vignettes with data confirming that civil wars today are fought by small num- 
bers of lightly armed men who use their knowledge of the local landscape to 
elude national forces and intimidate informants and government sympathiz- 
ers. These insurgencies and rural guerrilla wars may have any number of 
pretexts, but at heart they are less ethnic, religious, or ideological contests than 
turf battles between street gangs or Mafiosi. In a regression analysis of 122 
civil wars between 1945 and 1999, Fearon and Laitin found that, holding per 
capita income constant (which they interpret as a proxy for government 
resources), civil wars were not more likely to break out in countries that were 
ethnically or religiously diverse, that had policies which discriminated against 
minority religions or languages, or that had high levels of income inequality. 
Civil wars were more likely to break out in countries that had large popula- 
tions, mountainous terrain, new or unstable governments, significant oil 
exports, and (perhaps) a large proportion of young males. Fearon and Laitin 
conclude, "Our theoretical interpretation is more Hobbesian than economic. 
Where states are relatively weak and capricious, both fears and opportunities 
encourage the rise of local would-be rulers who supply a rough justice while 
arrogating the power to 'tax' for themselves and, often, a larger cause." 48 

Just as the uptick in civil warfare arose from the decivilizing anarchy of decol- 
onization, the recent decline may reflect a recivilizing process in which com- 
petent governments have begun to protect and serve their citizens rather than 
preying on them. 49 Many African nations have traded in their Bokassa-style 
psychopaths for responsible democrats and, in the case of Nelson Mandela, 
one of history's greatest statesmen. 50 


The transition required an ideological change as well, not just in the affected 
countries but in the wider international community. The historian Gerard 
Prunier has noted that in 1960s Africa, independence from colonial rule became 
a messianic ideal. New nations made it a priority to adopt the trappings of 
sovereignty, such as airlines, palaces, and nationally branded institutions. Many 
were influenced by "dependency theorists" who advocated that third-world 
governments disengage from the global economy and cultivate self-sufficient 
industries and agrarian sectors, which most economists today consider a ticket 
to penury. Often economic nationalism was combined with a romantic milita- 
rism that glorified violent revolution, symbolized in two icons of the 1960s, the 
soft-color portrait of a glowing Mao and the hard-edged graphic of a dashing 
Che. When dictatorships by glorious revolutionaries lost their cachet, demo- 
cratic elections became the new elixir. No one found much romance in the 
frumpy institutions of the Civilizing Process, namely a competent government 
and police force and a dependable infrastructure for trade and commerce. Yet 
history suggests that these institutions are necessary for the reduction of 
chronic violence, which is a prerequisite to every other social good. 

During the past two decades the great powers, donor nations, and inter- 
governmental organizations (such as the African Union) have begun to press 
the point. They have ostracized, penalized, shamed, and in some cases invaded 
states that have come under the control of incompetent tyrants. 51 Measures to 
track and fight government corruption have become more common, as has 
the identification of barriers that penalize developing nations in global trade. 
Some combination of these unglamorous measures may have begun to reverse 
the governmental and social pathologies that had loosed civil wars on the 
developing world from the 1960s through the early 1990s. 

Decent governments tend to be reasonably democratic and market-oriented, 
and several regression studies have looked at datasets on civil conflict for signs 
of a Liberal Peace like the one that helps explain the avoidance of wars between 
developed nations. We have already seen that the first leg of the peace, democ- 
racy, does not reduce the number of civil conflicts, particularly when it comes 
in the rickety form of an anocracy. But it does seem to reduce their severity. 
The political scientist Bethany Lacina has found that civil wars in democracies 
have fewer than half the battle deaths of civil wars in nondemocracies, hold- 
ing the usual variables constant. In his 2008 survey of the Liberal Peace, 
Gleditsch concluded that "democracies rarely experience large-scale civil 
wars." 5 - The second leg of the Liberal Peace is even stronger. Openness to the 
global economy, including trade, foreign investment, aid with strings attached, 
and access to electronic media, appears to drive down both the likelihood and 
the severity of civil conflict. 53 

The theory of the Kantian Peace places the weight of peace on three legs, the 
third of which is international organizations. One type of international 


organization in particular can claim much of the credit for driving down civil 
wars: international peacekeeping forces. 54 In the postcolonial decades civil 
wars piled up not so much because they broke out at an increasing rate but 
because they broke out at a higher rate than they ended (2.2 outbreaks a year 
compared to 1.8 terminations), and thus began to accumulate. 55 By 1999 an 
average civil war had been going on for fifteen years! That began to change in 
the late 1990s and 2000s, when civil wars started to fizzle out faster than new 
ones took their place. They also tended to end in negotiated settlements, with- 
out a clear victor, rather than being fought to the bitter end. Formerly these 
embers would smolder for a couple of years and then flare up again, but now 
they were more likely to die out for good. 

This burst of peace coincides with a burst of peacekeepers. Figure 6-6 shows 
that beginning in the late 1980s the international community stepped up its 
peacekeeping operations and, more importantly, staffed them with increasing 
numbers of peacekeepers so they could do their job properly. The end of the 
Cold War was a turning point, because at last the great powers were more 
interested in seeing a conflict end than in seeing their proxy win 56 The rise of 
peacekeeping is also a sign of the humanist times. War is increasingly seen as 
repugnant, and that includes wars that kill black and brown people. 

Peacekeeping is one of the things that the United Nations, for all its foibles, 
does well. (It doesn't do so well at preventing wars in the first place.) In Does 
Peacekeeping Work? the political scientist Virginia Page Fortna answers the 
question in her title with "a clear and resounding yes." 57 Fortna assembled a 

FIGURE 6-6. Growth of peacekeeping, 1948-2008 

Source: Graph from Gleditsch, 2008, based on research by Siri Rustad. 


dataset of 115 cease-fires in civil wars from 1944 to 1997 and examined whether 
the presence of a peacekeeping mission lowered the chances that the war 
would reignite. The dataset included missions by the UN, by permanent orga- 
nizations such as NATO and the African Union, and by ad hoc coalitions of 
states. She found that the presence of peacekeepers reduced the risk of recid- 
ivism into another war by 80 percent. This doesn't mean that peacekeeping 
missions are always successful — the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda are two 
conspicuous failures — just that they prevent wars from restarting on average. 
Peacekeepers need not be substantial armies. Just as scrawny referees can pull 
apart brawling hockey players, lightly armed and even unarmed missions can 
get in between militias and induce them to lay down their weapons. And even 
when they don't succeed at that, they can serve as a tripwire for bringing in 
the bigger guns. Nor do peacekeepers have to be blue-helmeted soldiers. Func- 
tionaries who scrutinize elections, reform the police, monitor human rights, 
and oversee the functioning of bad governments also make a difference. 

Why does peacekeeping work? The first reason comes right out of Leviathan: 
the larger and better-armed missions can retaliate directly against violators 
of a peace agreement on either side, raising the costs of aggression. The 
imposed costs and benefits can be reputational as well as material. A member 
of a mission commented on what led Afonso Dhlakama and his RENAMO 
rebel force to sign a peace agreement with the government of Mozambique: 
"For Dhlakama, it meant a great deal to be taken seriously, to go to cocktail 
parties and be treated with respect. Through the UN he got the government 
to stop calling RENAMO 'armed bandits.' It felt good to be wooed." 58 

Even small missions can be effective at keeping a peace because they can 
free the adversaries from a FFobbesian trap in which each side is tempted to 
attack out of fear of being attacked first. The very act of accepting intrusive 
peacekeepers is a costly (hence credible) signal that each side is serious about 
not attacking. Once the peacekeepers are in place, they can reinforce this 
security by monitoring compliance with the agreement, which allows them 
to credibly reassure each side that the other is not secretly rearming. They can 
also assume everyday policing activities, which deter the small acts of violence 
that can escalate into cycles of revenge. And they can identify the hotheads 
and spoilers who want to subvert the agreement. Even if a spoiler does launch 
a provocative attack, the peacekeepers can credibly reassure the target that it 
was a rogue act rather than the opening shot in a resumption of aggression. 

Peacekeeping initiatives have other levers of influence. They can try to 
stamp out the trade in contraband that finances rebels and warlords, who are 
often the same people. They can dangle pork-barrel funding as an incentive 
to leaders who abide by the peace, enhancing their power and electoral popu- 
larity. As one Sierra Leonean said of a presidential candidate, "If Kabbah go, 
white man go, UN go, money go." 59 Also, since third-world soldiers (like pre- 
modern soldiers) are often paid in opportunities to plunder, the money can 


be applied to "demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration" programs 
that aim to draw General Butt Naked and his comrades back into civil society. 
With guerrillas who have more of an ideological agenda, the fact that the bribes 
come from a neutral party rather than a despised enemy allows them to feel 
they have not sold out. Leverage can also be applied to force political leaders 
to open their governments to rival political or ethnic groups. As with the 
financial sweeteners, the fact that the concessions are made to a neutral party 
rather than to the hated foe provides the conceder with an opportunity to save 
face. Desmond Malloy, a UN worker in Sierra Leone, observed that "peace- 
keepers create an atmosphere for negotiations. [Concessions] become a point 
of pride — it's a human trait. So you need a mechanism that allows negotiations 
without losing dignity and pride." 60 

For all these encouraging statistics, news readers who are familiar with the 
carnage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Sudan, and other death- 
traps may not be reassured. The PRIO/UCDP data we have been examining 
are limited in two ways. They include only state-based conflicts: wars in which 
at least one of the sides is a government. And they include only battle-related 
deaths: fatalities caused by battlefield weapons. What happens to the trends 
when we start looking for the keys that don't fall under these lampposts? 

The first exclusion consists of the nonstate conflicts (also called intercom- 
munal violence), in which warlords, militias, mafias, rebel groups, or para- 
militaries, often affiliated with ethnic groups, go after each other. These 
conflicts usually occur in failed states, almost by definition. A war that doesn't 
even bother to invite the government represents the ultimate failure of the 
state's monopoly on violence. 

The problem with nonstate conflicts is that until recently war buffs just 
weren't interested in them. No one kept track, so there's nothing to count, and 
we cannot plot the trends. Even the United Nations, whose mission is to pre- 
vent "the scourge of war," refuses to keep statistics on intercommunal violence 
(or on any other form of armed conflict), because its member states don't want 
social scientists poking around inside their borders and exposing the violence 
that their murderous governments cause or their inept governments fail to 
prevent. 61 

Nonetheless, a broad look at history suggests that nonstate conflicts today 
must be far fewer than they were in decades and centuries past, when less of 
the earth's surface was controlled by states. Tribal battles, slave raids, pillag- 
ings by raiders and horse tribes, pirate attacks, and private wars by noblemen 
and warlords, all of them nonstate, were scourges of humanity for millennia. 
During China's "warlord era" from 1916 to 1928, more than 900,000 people 
were killed by competing military chieftains in just a dozen years. 62 

It was only in 2002 that nonstate conflicts began to be tabulated. Since then 
the UCDP has maintained a Non-State Conflict Dataset, and it contains three 


revelations. First, nonstate conflicts are in some years as numerous as state- 
based conflicts — which says more about the scarcity of war than about the 
prevalence of intercommunal combat. Most of them, not surprisingly, are in 
sub-Saharan Africa, though a growing number are in the Middle East (most 
prominently, Iraq). Second, nonstate conflicts kill far fewer people than con- 
flicts that involve a government, perhaps a quarter as many. Again, this is not 
surprising, since governments almost by definition are in the violence busi- 
ness. Third, the trend in the death toll from 2002 to 2008 (the most recent year 
covered in the dataset) has been mostly downward, despite 2007's being the 
deadliest year for intercommunal violence in Iraq. 63 So as best as anyone can 
tell, it seems unlikely that nonstate conflicts kill enough people to stand as a 
counterexample to the decline in the worldwide toll of armed conflict that 
constitutes the New Peace. 

A more serious challenge is the number of indirect deaths of civilians from 
the hunger, disease, and lawlessness exacerbated by war. One often reads that 
a century ago only 10 percent of the deaths in war were suffered by civilians, 
but that today the figure is 90 percent. Consistent with this claim are new 
surveys by epidemiologists that reveal horrendous numbers of "excess deaths" 
(direct and indirect) among civilians. Rather than counting bodies from media 
reports and nongovernmental organizations, surveyors ask a sample of people 
whether they know someone who was killed, then extrapolate the proportion 
to the population as a whole. One of these surveys, published in the medical 
journal Lancet in 2006, estimated that 600,000 people died in the war in Iraq 
between 2003 and 2006 — overwhelmingly more than the 80,000 to 90,000 bat- 
tle deaths counted for that period by PRIO and by the Iraq Body Count, a 
respected nongovernmental organization. 64 Another survey in the Democratic 
Republic of the Congo put the death toll from its civil war at 5.4 million — about 
thirty-five times the PRIO battle-death estimate, and more than half of the 
total of all the battle deaths it has recorded in all wars since 1946. 65 Even grant- 
ing that the PRIO figures are intended as lower bounds (because of the strin- 
gent requirements that deaths be attributed to a cause), this is quite a 
discrepancy, and raises doubts about whether, in the big picture, the decline 
in battle deaths can really be interpreted as an advance in peace. 

Casualty figures are always moralized, and it's not surprising that these 
three numbers, which have been used to indict, respectively, the 20th century. 
Bush's invasion of Iraq, and the world's indifference to Africa, have been widely 
disseminated. But an objective look at the sources suggests that the revision- 
ist estimates are not credible (which, needless to say, does not imply that any- 
one should be indifferent to civilian deaths in wartime). 

First off, the commonly cited io-percent-to-90-percent reversal in civilian 
casualties turns out to be completely bogus. The political scientists Andrew 
Mack (of HSRP), Joshua Goldstein, and Adam Roberts have each tried to track 


down the source of this meme, since they all knew that the data needed to 
underpin it do not exist. 66 They also knew that the claim fails basic sanity 
checks. For much of human history, peasants have subsisted on what they 
could grow, producing little in the way of a surplus. A horde of soldiers living 
off the land could easily tip a rural population into starvation. The Thirty 
Years' War in particular saw not only numerous massacres of civilians but the 
deliberate destruction of homes, crops, livestock, and water supplies, adding 
up to truly horrendous civilian death tolls. The American Civil War, with its 
blockades, crop-burnings, and scorched-earth campaigns, caused an enor- 
mous number of civilian casualties (the historical reality behind Scarlett 
O'Hara's vow in Gone With the Wind: "As God is my witness. I'll never be hungry 
again"). 67 During World War I the battlefront moved through populated areas, 
raining artillery shells on towns and villages, and each side tried to starve the 
other's civilians with blockades. And as I have mentioned, if one includes the 
victims of the 1918 flu epidemic as indirect deaths from the war, one could 
multiply the number of civilian casualties many times over. World War II, also 
in the first half of the 20th century, decimated civilians with a holocaust, a 
blitz, Slaughterhouse-Five-\ike firebombings of cities in Germany and Japan, 
and not one but two atomic explosions. It seems unlikely that today's wars, 
however destructive to civilians, could be substantially worse. 

Goldstein, Roberts, and Mack traced the meme to a chain of garbled retell- 
ings in which different kinds of casualty estimates were mashed up: battle 
deaths in one era were compared with battle deaths, indirect deaths, injuries, 
and refugees in another. Mack and Goldstein estimate that civilians suffer 
around half of the battle deaths in war, and that the ratio varies from war to 
war but has not increased over time. Indeed, we shall see that it has recently 
decreased by a substantial margin. 

The most widely noted of the recent epidemiological estimates is the Lancet 
study of deaths in Iraq. 68 A team of eight Iraqi health workers went door to 
door in eighteen regions and asked people about recent deaths in the family. 
The epidemiologists subtracted the death rate for the years before the 2003 
invasion from the death rate for the years after, figuring that the difference 
could be attributed to the war, and multiplied that proportion by the size of 
the population of Iraq. This arithmetic suggested that 655,000 more Iraqis died 
than if the invasion had never taken place. And 92 percent of these excess 
deaths, the families indicated, were direct battle deaths from gunshots, air- 
strikes, and car bombs, not indirect deaths from disease or starvation. If so, 
the standard body counts would be underestimates by a factor of around 

Without meticulous criteria for selecting a sample, though, extrapolations 
to an entire population can be wildly off. A team of statisticians led by Michael 
Spagat and Neil Johnson found these estimates incredible and discovered that 
a disproportionate number of the surveyed families lived on major streets and 


intersections — just the places where bombings and shootings are most likely. 69 
An improved study conducted by the World Health Organization came up 
with a figure that was a quarter of the Lancet number, and even that required 
inflating an original estimate by a fudge factor of 35 percent to compensate 
for lying, moves, and memory lapses. Their unadjusted figure, around 110,000, 
is far closer to the battle-death body counts. 70 

Another team of epidemiologists extrapolated from retrospective surveys 
of war deaths in thirteen countries to challenge the entire conclusion that 
battle deaths have declined since the middle of the 20th century. 71 Spagat, 
Mack, and their collaborators have examined them and shown that the esti- 
mates are all over the map and are useless for tracking war deaths over time. 72 

What about the report of 5.4 million deaths (90 percent of them from disease 
and hunger) in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? 73 It also 
turns out to be inflated. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) got the 
number by taking an estimate of the prewar death rate that was far too low 
(because it came from sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, which is better off than 
the DRC) and subtracting it from an estimate of the rate during the war that 
was far too high (because it came from areas where the IRC was providing 
humanitarian assistance, which are just the areas with the highest impact from 
war). The HSRP, while acknowledging that the indirect death toll in the DRC 
is high — probably over a million — cautions against accepting estimates of 
excess deaths from retrospective survey data, since in addition to all of their 
sampling pitfalls, they require dubious conjectures about what would have 
happened if a war had not taken place. 74 

Amazingly, the HSRP has collected evidence that death rates from disease 
and hunger have tended to go down, not up, during the wars of the past three 
decades 75 It may sound like they are saying that war is healthy for children 
and other living things after all, but that is not their point. Instead, they doc- 
ument that deaths from malnutrition and hunger in the developing world 
have been dropping steadily over the years, and that the civil wars of today, 
which are fought by packs of insurgents in limited regions of a country, have 
not been destructive enough to reverse the tide. In fact, when medical and 
food assistance is rushed to a war zone, where it is often administered during 
humanitarian cease-fires, the progress can accelerate. 

How is this possible? Many people are unaware of what UNICEF calls the 
Child Survival Revolution. (The revolution pertains to adult survival too, 
though children under five are the most vulnerable population and hence the 
ones most dramatically helped.) Humanitarian assistance has gotten smarter. 
Rather than just throwing money at a problem, aid organizations have adapted 
discoveries from the science of public health about which scourges kill the 
most people and which weapon against each one is the most cost-effective. 
Most childhood deaths in the developing world come from four causes: 
malaria; diarrheal diseases such as cholera and dysentery; respiratory infections 


such as pneumonia, influenza, and tuberculosis; and measles. Each is prevent- 
able or treatable, often remarkably cheaply. Mosquito nets, anti malarial drugs, 
antibiotics, water purifiers, oral rehydration therapy (a bit of salt and sugar 
in clean water), vaccinations, and breast-feeding (which reduces diarrheal 
and respiratory diseases) can save enormous numbers of lives. Over the last 
three decades, vaccination alone (which in 1974 protected just 5 percent of the 
world's children and today protects 75 percent) has saved 20 million lives. 76 
Ready-to-use therapeutic foods like Plumpy'nut, a peanutbutterish goop in a 
foil package that children are said to like, can make a big dent in malnutrition 
and starvation. 

Together these measures have slashed the human costs of war and belied 
the worry that an increase in indirect deaths has canceled or swamped the 
decrease in battle deaths. The HSRP estimates that during the Korean War 
about 4.5 percent of the population died from disease and starvation in every 
year of the four-year conflict. During the DRC civil war, even if we accept the 
overly pessimistic estimate of 5 million indirect deaths, it would amount to 
1 percent of the country's population per year, a reduction of more than four- 
fold from Korea. 77 

It's not easy to see the bright side in the developing world, where the rem- 
nants of war continue to cause tremendous misery. The effort to whittle down 
the numbers that quantify the misery can seem heartless, especially when the 
numbers serve as propaganda for raising money and attention. But there is a 
moral imperative in getting the facts right, and not just to maintain credibility. 
The discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can 
thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might other- 
wise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes. And a better under- 
standing of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things 
that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how altru- 
istic we are. Among the surprises in the statistics are that some things that 
sound exciting, like instant independence, natural resources, revolutionary 
Marxism (when it is effective), and electoral democracy (when it is not) can 
increase deaths from violence, and some things that sound boring, like effec- 
tive law enforcement, openness to the world economy, UN peacekeepers, and 
Plumpy'nut, can decrease them. 


Of all the varieties of violence of which our sorry species is capable, genocide 
stands apart, not only as the most heinous but as the hardest to comprehend. 
We can readily understand why from time to time people enter into deadly 
quarrels over money, honor, or love, why they punish wrongdoers to excess, 
and why they take up arms to combat other people who have taken up arms. 
But that someone should want to slaughter millions of innocents, including 


women, children, and the elderly, seems to insult any claim we may have to 
comprehend our kind. Whether it is called genocide (killing people because 
of their race, religion, ethnicity, or other indelible group membership), politi- 
cide (killing people because of their political affiliation), or democide (any 
mass killing of civilians by a government or militia), killing-by-category tar- 
gets people for what they are rather than what they do and thus seems to flout 
the usual motives of gain, fear, and vengeance. 78 

Genocide also shocks the imagination by the sheer number of its victims. 
Rummel, who was among the first historians to try to count them all, famously 
estimated that during the 20th century 169 million people were killed by their 
governments. 79 The number is, to be sure, a highball estimate, but most atroci- 
tologists agree that in the 20th century more people were killed by democides 
than by wars. 80 Matthew White, in a comprehensive overview of the published 
estimates, reckons that 81 million people were killed by democide and another 
40 million by man-made famines (mostly by Stalin and Mao), for a total of 121 
million. Wars, in comparison, killed 37 million soldiers and 27 million civil- 
ians in battle, and another 18 million in the resulting famines, for a total of 82 
million deaths. 81 (White adds, though, that about half of the democide deaths 
took place during wars and may not have been possible without them.) 82 

Killing so many people in so short a time requires methods of mass produc- 
tion of death that add another layer of horror. The Nazis' gas chambers and 
crematoria will stand forever as the most shocking visual symbols of genocide. 
But modern chemistry and railroads are by no means necessary for high- 
throughput killing. When the French revolutionaries suppressed a revolt in 
the Vendee region in 1793, they hit upon the idea of packing prisoners into 
barges, sinking them below the water's surface long enough to drown the 
human cargo, and then floating them up for the next batch. 83 Even during the 
Holocaust, the gas chambers were not the most efficient means of killing. 
The Nazis killed more people with their Einsatzgruppen, or mobile firing squads, 
which were foreshadowed by other teams of quick-moving soldiers with pro- 
jectile weapons such as Assyrians in chariots and Mongols on horses. 84 During 
the genocide of Hutus by Tutsis in Burundi in 1972 (a predecessor of the reverse 
genocide in Rwanda twenty-two years later), a perpetrator explained: 

Several techniques, several, several. One can gather two thousand persons 
in a house — in a prison, let us say. There are some halls which are large. The 
house is locked. The men are left there for fifteen days without eating, with- 
out drinking. Then one opens. One finds cadavers. Not beaten, not anything. 
Dead. 85 

The bland military term "siege" hides the fact that depriving a city of food 
and finishing off the weakened survivors is a time-honored and cost-effective 
form of extermination. As Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn point out in The 


History and Sociology of Genocide, "The authors of history textbooks hardly ever 
reported what the razing of an ancient city meant for its inhabitants." 86 One 
exception is the Book of Deuteronomy, which offers a backdated prophecy 
that was based on the Assyrian or Babylonian conquest: 

In the desperate straits to which the enemy siege reduces you, you will eat 
the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters whom the LORD 
your God has given you. Even the most refined and gentle of men among 
you will begrudge food to his own brother, to the wife whom he embraces, 
and to the last of his remaining children, giving to none of them any of the 
flesh of his children whom he is eating, because nothing else remains to 
him, in the desperate straits to which the enemy siege will reduce you in all 
your towns. She who is the most refined and gentle among you, so gentle 
and refined that she does not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground, 
will begrudge food to the husband whom she embraces, to her own son, and 
to her own daughter, begrudging even the afterbirth that comes out from 
between her thighs, and the children that she bears, because she will eat 
them in secret for lack of anything else, in the desperate straits to which the 
enemy siege will reduce you in your towns.® 7 

Apart from numbers and methods, genocides sear the moral imagination 
by the gratuitous sadism indulged in by the perpetrators. Eyewitness accounts 
from every continent and decade recount how victims are taunted, tormented, 
and mutilated before being put to death. 88 In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky 
commented on Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria during the Russo-Turkish War of 
1877-78, when unborn children were ripped from their mothers' wombs and 
prisoners were nailed by their ears to a fence overnight before being hanged: 
"People speak sometimes about the 'animal' cruelty of man, but that is terribly 
unjust and offensive to animals. No animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so 
artfully, so artistically cruel. A tiger simply gnaws and tears, that is all he can 
do. It would never occur to him to nail people by their ears overnight, even if 
he were able to do it."® 9 My own reading of histories of genocide has left me 
with images to disturb sleep for a lifetime. I'll recount two that lodge in the 
mind not because of any gore (though such accounts are common enough) but 
because of their cold-bloodedness. Both are taken from the philosopher Jona- 
than Glover's Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. 

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966-75, Mao encouraged 
marauding Red Guards to terrorize "class enemies," including teachers, man- 
agers, and the descendants of landlords and "rich peasants," killing perhaps 
7 million. 90 In one incident: 

Young men ransacking an old couple's house found boxes of precious French 
glass. When the old man begged them not to destroy the glass, one of the 


group hit him in the mouth with a club, leaving him spitting out blood and 
teeth. The students smashed the glass and left the couple on their knees 
crying . 91 

During the Holocaust, Christian Wirth commanded a slave labor com- 
pound in Poland, where Jews were worked to death sorting the clothes of their 
murdered compatriots. Their children had been taken from them and sent to 
the death camps. 

Wirth allowed one exception. . . . One Jewish boy around ten was given 
sweets and dressed up as a little SS man. Wirth and he rode among the 
prisoners, Wirth on a white horse and the boy on a pony, both using machine- 
guns to kill prisoners (including the boy's mother) at close range . 92 

Glover allows himself a comment: "To this ultimate expression of contempt 
and mockery, no reaction of disgust and anger is remotely adequate." 

How could people do these things? Making sense of killing-by-category, inso- 
far as we can do so at all, must begin with the psychology of categories . 93 

People sort other people into mental pigeonholes according to their affili- 
ations, customs, appearances, and beliefs. Though it's tempting to think of 
this stereotyping as a kind of mental defect, categorization is indispensable 
to intelligence. Categories allow us to make inferences from a few observed 
qualities to a larger number of unobserved ones. If I note the color and shape 
of a fruit and classify it as a raspberry, I can infer that it will taste sweet, satisfy 
my hunger, and not poison me. Politically correct sensibilities may bridle at 
the suggestion that a group of people, like a variety of fruit, may have features 
in common, but if they didn't, there would be no cultural diversity to celebrate 
and no ethnic qualities to be proud of. Groups of people cohere because they 
really do share traits, albeit statistically. So a mind that generalizes about 
people from their category membership is not ipso facto defective. African 
Americans today really are more likely to be on welfare than whites, Jews 
really do have higher average incomes than WASPs, and business students 
really are more politically conservative than students in the arts — on average . 94 

The problem with categorization is that it often goes beyond the statistics. 
For one thing, when people are pressured, distracted, or in an emotional state, 
they forget that a category is an approximation and act as if a stereotype 
applies to every last man, woman, and child . 95 For another, people tend to 
moralize their categories, assigning praiseworthy traits to their allies and con- 
demnable ones to their enemies. During World War II, for example, Americans 
thought that Russians had more positive traits than Germans; during the Cold 
War they thought it was the other way around 96 Finally, people tend to essen- 
tialize groups. As children, they tell experimenters that a baby whose parents 


have been switched at birth will speak the language of her biological rather 
than her adoptive parents. As they get older, people tend to think that mem- 
bers of particular ethnic and religious groups share a quasi-biological essence, 
which makes them homogeneous, unchangeable, predictable, and distinct 
from other groups. 97 

The cognitive habit of treating people as instances of a category gets truly 
dangerous when people come into conflict. It turns Hobbes's trio of violent 
motives — gain, fear, and deterrence — from the bones of contention in an indi- 
vidual quarrel to the casus belli in an ethnic war. Historical surveys have 
shown that genocides are caused by this triad of motives, with, as we shall 
see, two additional toxins spiked into the brew. 98 

Some genocides begin as matters of convenience. Natives are occupying a 
desirable territory or are monopolizing a source of water, food, or minerals, 
and invaders would rather have it for themselves. Eliminating the people is 
like clearing brush or exterminating pests, and is enabled by nothing fancier 
in our psychology than the fact that human sympathy can be turned on or off 
depending on how another person is categorized. Many genocides of indig- 
enous peoples are little more than expedient grabs of land or slaves, with the 
victims typed as less than human. Such genocides include the numerous 
expulsions and massacres of Native Americans by settlers or governments in 
the Americas, the brutalization of African tribes by King Leopold of Belgium 
in the Congo Free State, the extermination of the Herero by German colonists 
in South-West Africa, and the attacks on Darfuris by government-encouraged 
Janjaweed militias in the 2000s. 99 

When conquerors find it expedient to suffer the natives to live so that they 
can provide tribute and taxes, genocide can have a second down-to-earth 
function. A reputation for a willingness to commit genocide comes in handy 
for a conqueror because it allows him to present a city with an ultimatum to 
surrender or else. To make the threat credible, the invader has to be prepared 
to carry it out. This was the rationale behind the annihilation of the cities of 
western Asia by Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes. 

Once the conquerors have absorbed a city or territory into an empire, they 
may keep it in line with the threat that they will come down on any revolt like 
a ton of bricks. In 68 CE the governor of Alexandria called in Roman troops to 
put down a rebellion by the Jews against Roman rule. According to the historian 
Flavius Josephus, "Once [the Jews] were forced back, they were unmercifully 
and completely destroyed. Some were caught in the open field, others forced 
into their houses, which were plundered and then set on fire. The Romans 
showed no mercy to the infants, had no regard for the aged, and went on in the 
slaughter of persons of every age, until all the place was overflowed with blood, 
and 50,000 Jews lay dead." 100 Similar tactics have been used in 20th-century 
counterinsurgency campaigns, such as the ones by the Soviets in Afghanistan 
and right-wing military governments in Indonesia and Central America. 


When a dehumanized people is in a position to defend itself or turn the 
tables, it can set a Hobbesian trap of group-against-group fear. Either side may 
see the other as an existential threat that must be preemptively taken out. After 
the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Serbian nationalists' genocide of Bos- 
nians and Kosovars was partly fueled by fears that they would be the victims 
of massacres themselves. 101 

If members of a group have seen their comrades victimized, have narrowly 
escaped victimization themselves, or paranoically worry they have been tar- 
geted for victimization, they may stoke themselves into a moralistic fury and 
seek vengeance on their perceived assailants. Like all forms of revenge, a 
retaliatory massacre is pointless once it has to be carried out, but a well- 
advertised and implacable drive to carry it out, regardless of its costs at the 
time, may have been programmed into people's brains by evolution, cultural 
norms, or both as a way to make the deterrent credible. 

These Hobbesian motives don't fully explain why predation, preemption, 
or revenge should be directed against entire groups of people rather than 
the individuals who get in the way or make trouble. The cognitive habit of 
pigeonholing may be one reason, and another is explained in The Godfather: 
Part II when the young Vito Corleone's mother begs a Sicilian don to spare the 
boy's life: 

Widow: Don Francesco. You murdered my husband, because he would not 
bend. And his oldest son Paolo, because he swore revenge. But Vitone is 
only nine, and dumb-witted. He never speaks. 

Francesco: I'm not afraid of his words. 

Widow : He is weak. 

Francesco: He will grow strong. 

Widow: The child cannot harm you. 

Francesco: He will be a man, and then he will come for revenge. 

And come for revenge he does. Later in the film the grown Vito returns to 
Sicily, seeks an audience with the don, whispers his name into the old man's 
ear, and cuts him open like a sturgeon. 

The solidarity among the members of a family, clan, or tribe — in particular, 
their resolve to avenge killings — makes them all fair game for someone with 
a bone to pick with any one of them. Though equal-sized groups in frequent 
contact tend to constrain their revenge to an-eye-for-an-eye reciprocity, 
repeated violations may turn episodic anger into chronic hatred. As Aristotle 
wrote, "The angry man wishes the object of his anger to suffer in return; hatred 
wishes its object not to exist." 102 When one side finds itself with an advantage 
in numbers or tactics, it may seize the opportunity to impose a final solution. 
Feuding tribes are well aware of genocide's practical advantages. The anthro- 
pologist Rafael Karsten worked with the Jivaro of Amazonian Ecuador (a tribe 


that contributed one of the long bars to the graph of rates of death in warfare in 
figure 2-2) and recounts their ways of war: 

Whereas the small feuds within the sub-tribes have the character of a private 
blood-revenge, based on the principle of just retaliation, the wars between 
the different tribes are in principle wars of extermination. In these there is 
no question of weighing life against life; the aim is to completely annihilate 
the enemy tribe. . . . The victorious party is all the more anxious to leave no 
single person of the enemy's people, not even small children, alive, as they 
fear lest these should later appear as avengers against the victors. 103 

Half a world away, the anthropologist Margaret Durham offered a similar 
vignette from an Albanian tribe that ordinarily abided by norms for measured 

In February 1912 an amazing case of wholesale justice was reported to 
me. ... A certain family of the Fandi bairak [subtribe] had long been notori- 
ous for evil-doing — robbing, shooting, and being a pest to the tribe. A gath- 
ering of all the heads condemned all the males of the family to death. Men 
were appointed to lay in wait for them on a certain day and pick them off; 
and on that day the whole seventeen of them were shot. One was but five 
and another but twelve years old. I protested against thus killing children 
who must be innocent and was told: "It was bad blood and must not be fur- 
ther propagated." Such was the belief in heredity that it was proposed to 
kill an unfortunate woman who was pregnant, lest she should bear a male 
and so renew the evil. 104 

The essentialist notion of "bad blood" is one of several biological metaphors 
inspired by a fear of the revenge of the cradle. People anticipate that if they 
leave even a few of a defeated enemy alive, the remnants will multiply and 
cause trouble down the line. Human cognition often works by analogy, and 
the concept of an irksome collection of procreating beings repeatedly calls to 
mind the concept of vermin. 105 Perpetrators of genocide the world over keep 
rediscovering the same metaphors to the point of cliche. Despised people are 
rats, snakes, maggots, lice, flies, parasites, cockroaches, or (in parts of the world 
where they are pests) monkeys, baboons, and dogs. 106 "Kill the nits and you 
will have no lice," wrote an English commander in Ireland in 1641, justifying 
an order to kill thousands of Irish Catholics. 107 "A nit would make a louse," 
recalled a Californian settler leader in 1856 before slaying 240 Yuki in revenge 
for their killing of a horse. 108 "Nits make lice," said Colonel John Chivington 
before the Sand Creek Massacre, which killed hundreds of Cheyenne and 
Arapaho in 1864. 109 Cankers, cancers, bacilli, and viruses are other insidious 
biological agents that lend themselves as figures of speech in the poetics of 


genocide. When it came to the Jews, Hitler mixed his metaphors, but they were 
always biological: Jews were viruses; Jews were bloodsucking parasites; Jews 
were a mongrel race; Jews had poisonous blood. 110 

The human mind has evolved a defense against contamination by biologi- 
cal agents: the emotion of disgust. 111 Ordinarily triggered by bodily secretions, 
animal parts, parasitic insects and worms, and vectors of disease, disgust 
impels people to eject the polluting substance and anything that looks like it 
or has been in contact with it. Disgust is easily moralized, defining a contin- 
uum in which one pole is identified with spirituality, purity, chastity, and 
cleansing and the other with animality, defilement, carnality, and contamina- 
tion. 112 And so we see disgusting agents as not just physically repellent but 
also morally contemptible. Many metaphors in the English language for a 
treacherous person use a disease vector as their vehicle — a rat, a louse, a worm, 
a cockroach. The infamous 1990s term for forced displacement and genocide 
was ethnic cleansing. 

Metaphorical thinking goes in both directions. Not only do we apply dis- 
gust metaphors to morally devalued peoples, but we tend to morally devalue 
people who are physically disgusting (a phenomenon we encountered in chap- 
ter 4 when considering Lynn Hunt's theory that a rise in hygiene in Europe 
caused a decline in cruel punishments). At one pole of the continuum, white- 
clad ascetics who undergo rituals of purification are revered as holy men and 
women. At the other, people living in degradation and filth are reviled as 
subhuman. The chemist and writer Primo Levi described this spiral during 
the transport of Jews to the death camps in Germany: 

The SS escort did not hide their amusement at the sight of men and women 
squatting wherever they could, on the platforms and in the middle of the 
tracks, and the German passengers openly expressed their disgust: people 
like this deserve their fate, just look how they behave. These are not Menschen, 
human beings, but animals, it's clear as the light of day. 113 

The emotional pathways to genocide — anger, fear, and disgust — can occur 
in various combinations. In Worse than War, a history of 20th-century genocide, 
the political scientist Daniel Goldhagen points out that not all genocides have 
the same causes. He classifies them according to whether the victim group is 
dehumanized (a target of moralized disgust), demonized (a target of moralized 
anger), both, or neither. 114 A dehumanized group may be exterminated like 
vermin, such as the Hereros in the eyes of German colonists, Armenians in 
the eyes of Turks, black Darfuris in the eyes of Sudanese Muslims, and many 
indigenous peoples in the eyes of European settlers. A demonized group, in 
contrast, is thought to be equipped with the standard human reasoning facul- 
ties, which makes them all the more culpable for embracing a heresy or reject- 
ing the one true faith. Among these modern heretics were the victims of 


communist autocracies, and the victims of their opposite number, the right- 
wing dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, and El Salvador. Then there 
are the out-and-out demons — groups that manage to be both repulsively sub- 
human and despicably evil. This is how the Nazis saw the Jews, and how Hutus 
and Tutsis saw each other. Finally, there may be groups that are not reviled as 
evil or subhuman but are feared as potential predators and eliminated in 
preemptive attacks, such as in the Balkan anarchy following the breakup of 

So far I have tried to explain genocide in the following way. The mind's habit 
of essentialism can lump people into categories; its moral emotions can be 
applied to them in their entirety. The combination can transform Hobbesian 
competition among individuals or armies into Hobbesian competition among 
peoples. But genocide has another fateful component. As Solzhenitsyn pointed 
out, to kill by the millions you need an ideology . 115 Utopian creeds that sub- 
merge individuals into moralized categories may take root in powerful 
regimes and engage their full destructive might. For this reason it is ideologies 
that generate the outliers in the distribution of genocide death tolls. Divisive 
ideologies include Christianity during the Crusades and the Wars of Religion 
(and in an offshoot, the Taiping Rebellion in China); revolutionary romanti- 
cism during the politicides of the French Revolution; nationalism during the 
genocides in Ottoman Turkey and the Balkans; Nazism in the Holocaust; and 
Marxism during the purges, expulsions, and terror-famines in Stalin's Soviet 
Union, Mao's China, and Pol Pot's Cambodia. 

Why should utopian ideologies so often lead to genocide? At first glance it 
seems to make no sense. Even if an actual utopia is unattainable for all kinds 
of practical reasons, shouldn't the quest for a perfect world at least leave us 
with a better one — a world that is 60 percent of the way to perfection, say, or 
even 15 percent? After all, a man's reach must exceed his grasp. Shouldn't we 
aim high, dream the impossible dream, imagine things that never were and 
ask "why not"? 

Utopian ideologies invite genocide for two reasons. One is that they set up 
a pernicious utilitarian calculus. In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its 
moral value is infinite. Most of us agree that it is ethically permissible to divert 
a runaway trolley that threatens to kill five people onto a side track where it 
would kill only one. But suppose it were a hundred million lives one could 
save by diverting the trolley, or a billion, or — projecting into the indefinite 
future — infinitely many. How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice 
to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain. 

Not only that, but consider the people who learn about the promise of a 
perfect world yet nonetheless oppose it. They are the only things standing in 
the way of a plan that could lead to infinite goodness. How evil are they? You 
do the math. 


The second genocidal hazard of a utopia is that it has to conform to a tidy 
blueprint. In a utopia, everything is there for a reason. What about the people? 
Well, groups of people are diverse. Some of them stubbornly, perhaps essen- 
tially, cling to values that are out of place in a perfect world. They may be 
entrepreneurial in a world that works by communal sharing, or bookish in a 
world that works by labor, or brash in a world that works by piety, or clannish 
in a world that works by unity, or urban and commercial in a world that has 
returned to its roots in nature. If you are designing the perfect society on a 
clean sheet of paper, why not write these eyesores out of the plans from the 

In Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta 
to Darfur, the historian Ben Kiernan notes another curious feature of utopian 
ideologies. Time and again they hark back to a vanished agrarian paradise, 
which they seek to restore as a healthful substitute for prevailing urban 
decadence. In chapter 4 we saw that after the Enlightenment had emerged 
from the intellectual bazaar of cosmopolitan cities, the German counter- 
Enlightenment romanticized the attachment of a people to their land — the 
blood and soil of Kiernan's title. The ungovernable metropolis, with its fluid 
population and ethnic and occupational enclaves, is an affront to a mindset 
that envisions a world of harmony, purity, and organic wholeness. Many of 
the nationalisms of the 19th and early 20th centuries were guided by utopian 
images of ethnic groups flourishing in their native homelands, often based on 
myths of ancestral tribes who settled the territory at the dawn of time.” 6 This 
agrarian utopianism lay behind Hitler's dual obsessions: his loathing of Jewry, 
which he associated with commerce and cities, and his deranged plan to 
depopulate Eastern Europe to provide farmland for German city-dwellers to 
colonize. Mao's massive agrarian communes and Pol Pot's expulsion of Cam- 
bodian city-dwellers to rural killing fields are other examples. 

Commercial activities, which tend to be concentrated in cities, can themselves 
be triggers of moralistic hatred. As we shall see in chapter 9, people's intuitive 
sense of economics is rooted in tit-for-tat exchanges of concrete goods or services 
of equivalent value — say, three chickens for one knife. It does not easily grasp 
the abstract mathematical apparatus of a modern economy, such as money, 
profit, interest, and rent.” 7 In intuitive economics, farmers and craftsmen pro- 
duce palpable items of value. Merchants and other middlemen, who skim off a 
profit as they pass goods along without causing new stuff to come into being, 
are seen as parasites, despite the value they create by enabling transactions 
between producers and consumers who are unacquainted or separated by dis- 
tance. Moneylenders, who loan out a sum and then demand additional money 
in return, are held in even greater contempt, despite the service they render by 
providing people with money at times in their lives when it can be put to the 
best use. People tend to be oblivious to the intangible contributions of merchants 
and moneylenders and view them as bloodsuckers. (Once again the metaphor 


comes from biology.) Antipathy toward individual middlemen can easily trans- 
fer to antipathy to ethnic groups. The capital necessary to prosper in middlemen 
occupations consists mainly of expertise rather than land or factories, so it is 
easily shared among kin and friends, and it is highly portable. For these reasons 
it's common for particular ethnic groups to specialize in the middleman niche 
and to move to whatever communities currently lack them, where they tend to 
become prosperous minorities — and targets of envy and resentment. 1 * 8 Many 
victims of discrimination, expulsion, riots, and genocide have been social or 
ethnic groups that specialize in middlemen niches. They include various bour- 
geois minorities in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia, the Indians in East 
Africa and Oceania, the Ibos in Nigeria, the Armenians in Turkey, the Chinese 
in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, and the Jews in Europe. 119 

Democides are often scripted into the climax of an eschatological narrative, 
a final spasm of violence that will usher in millennial bliss. The parallels 
between the utopian ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries and the apoca- 
lyptic visions of traditional religions have often been noticed by historians of 
genocide. Daniel Chirot, writing with the social psychologist Clark McCauley, 

Marxist eschatology actually mimicked Christian doctrine. In the begin- 
ning, there was a perfect world with no private property, no classes, no 
exploitation, and no alienation — the Garden of Eden. Then came sin, the 
discovery of private property, and the creation of exploiters. Humanity was 
cast from the Garden to suffer inequality and want. Humans then experi- 
mented with a series of modes of production, from the slave, to the feudal, 
to the capitalist mode, always seeking the solution and not finding it. Finally 
there came a true prophet with a message of salvation, Karl Marx, who 
preached the truth of Science. He promised redemption but was not heeded, 
except by his close disciples who carried the truth forward. Eventually, 
however, the proletariat, the carriers of the true faith, will be converted by 
the religious elect, the leaders of the party, and join to create a more perfect 
world. A final, terrible revolution will wipe out capitalism, alienation, exploi- 
tation, and inequality. After that, history will end because there will be 
perfection on earth, and the true believers will have been saved. 120 

Drawing on the work of the historians Joachim Fest and George Mosse, 
they also comment on Nazi eschatology: 

It was not an accident that Hitler promised a Thousand Year Reich, a mil- 
lennium of perfection, similar to the thousand-year reign of goodness prom- 
ised in Revelation before the return of evil, the great battle between good 
and evil, and the final triumph of God over Satan. The entire imagery of his 
Nazi Party and regime was deeply mystical, suffused with religious, often 


Christian, liturgical symbolism, and it appealed to a higher law, to a mission 

decreed by fate and entrusted to the prophet Hitler. 121 

Finally, there are the job requirements. Would you want the stress and 
responsibility of running a perfect world? Utopian leadership selects for mon- 
umental narcissism and ruthlessness. 122 Its leaders are possessed of a certainty 
about the rectitude of their cause and an impatience for incremental reforms 
or on-the-fly adjustments guided by feedback from the human consequences 
of their grand schemes. Mao, who had his image plastered all over China and 
his little red book of sayings issued to every citizen, was described by his 
doctor and only confidant Li Zhisui as voracious for flattery, demanding of 
sexual servicing by concubines, and devoid of warmth and compassion. 123 In 
1958 he had a revelation that the country could double its steel production in 
a year if peasant families contributed to the national output by running back- 
yard smelters. On pain of death for failing to meet the quotas, peasants melted 
down their woks, knives, shovels, and doorknobs into lumps of useless metal. 
It was also revealed to him that China could grow large quantities of grain on 
small plots of land, freeing the rest for grasslands and gardens, if farmers 
planted the seedlings deep and close together so that class solidarity would 
make them grow strong and thick. 124 Peasants were herded into communes of 
50,000 to implement this vision, and anyone who dragged his feet or pointed 
out the obvious was executed as a class enemy. Impervious to signals from 
reality informing him that his Great Leap Forward was a great leap backward, 
Mao masterminded a famine that killed between 20 million and 30 million 

The motives of leaders are critical in understanding genocide, because the 
psychological ingredients — the mindset of essentialism; the Hobbesian 
dynamic of greed, fear, and vengeance; the moralization of emotions like dis- 
gust; and the appeal of utopian ideologies — do not overcome an entire popu- 
lation at once and incite them to mass killing. Groups that avoid, distrust, or 
even despise each other can coexist without genocide indefinitely. 125 Think, 
for example, of African Americans in the segregated American South, Pales- 
tinians in Israel and the occupied territories, and Africans in South Africa 
under apartheid. Even in Nazi Germany, where anti-Semitism had been 
entrenched for centuries, there is no indication that anyone but Hitler and a 
few fanatical henchmen thought it was a good idea for the Jews to be extermi- 
nated. 126 When a genocide is carried out, only a fraction of the population, 
usually a police force, military unit, or militia, actually commits the murders. 127 

In the 1st century CE, Tacitus wrote, " A shocking crime was committed on 
the unscrupulous initiative of a few individuals, with the blessing of more, 
and amid the passive acquiescence of all." According to the political scientist 
Benjamin Valentino in Final Solutions, that division of labor applies to the 
genocides of the 20th century as well. 128 A leader or small clique decides that 


the time for genocide is right. He gives the go-ahead to a relatively small force 
of armed men, made up a mixture of true believers, conformists, and thugs 
(often recruited, as in medieval armies, from the ranks of criminals, drifters, 
and other unemployable young men). They count on the rest of the population 
not to get in their way, and thanks to features of social psychology that we 
will explore in chapter 8, they generally don't. The psychological contributors 
to genocide, such as essentialism, moralization, and utopian ideologies, are 
engaged to different degrees in each of these constituencies. They consume 
the minds of the leaders and the true believers but have to tip the others only 
enough to allow the leaders to make their plans a reality. The indispensability 
of leaders to 20th-century genocide is made plain by the fact that when the 
leaders died or were removed by force, the killings stopped. 129 

If this analysis is on the right track, genocides can emerge from toxic reactions 
among human nature (including essentialism, moralization, and intuitive 
economics), Hobbesian security dilemmas, millennial ideologies, and the 
opportunities available to leaders. The question now is: how has this interac- 
tion changed over the course of history? 

It's not an easy question to answer, because historians have never found 
genocide particularly interesting. Since antiquity the stacks of libraries have 
been filled with scholarship on war, but scholarship on genocide is nearly 
nonexistent, though it killed more people. As Chalk and Jonassohn point out 
of ancient histories, "We know that empires have disappeared and that cities 
were destroyed, and we suspect that some wars were genocidal in their results; 
but we do not know what happened to the bulk of the populations involved 
in these events. Their fate was simply too unimportant. When they were men- 
tioned at all, they were usually lumped together with the herds of oxen, sheep, 
and other livestock." 130 

As soon as one realizes that the sackings, razings, and massacres of past 
centuries are what we would call genocide today, it becomes utterly clear that 
genocide is not a phenomenon of the 20th century. Those familiar with clas- 
sical history know that the Athenians destroyed Melos during the 5th- 
century-BCE Peloponnesian War; according to Thucydides, "the Athenians 
thereupon put to death all who were of military age and made slaves of the 
women and children." Another familiar example is the Romans' destruction 
of Carthage and its population during the Third Punic War in the 3rd century 
BCE, a war so total that the Romans, it was said, sowed salt into the ground 
to make it forever unfarmable. Other historical genocides include the real-life 
bloodbaths that inspired the ones narrated in the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the 
Hebrew Bible; the massacres and sackings during the Crusades; the suppres- 
sion of the Albigensian heresy; the Mongol invasions; the European witch 
hunts; and the carnage of the European Wars of Religion. 

The authors of recent histories of mass killing are adamant that the idea of 


an unprecedented "century of genocide" (the 20th) is a myth. On their first 
page Chalk and Jonassohn write, "Genocide has been practiced in all regions 
of the world and during all periods in history," and add that their eleven case 
studies of pre-20th-century genocides "are not intended to be either exhaus- 
tive or representative." 131 Kiernan agrees: "A major conclusion of this book is 
that genocide indeed occurred commonly before the twentieth century." One 
can see what he means with a glance at the first page of his table of contents: 

Part One: Early Imperial Expansion 

1. Classical Genocide and Early Modern Memory 

2. The Spanish Conquest of the New World 1492-1600 

3. Guns and Genocide in East Asia 1400-1600 

4. Genocidal Massacres in Early Modern Southeast Asia 

Part Two. Settler Colonialism 

5. The English Conquest of Ireland, 1365-1603 

6. Colonial North America, 1600-1776 

7. Genocidal Violence in Nineteenth-Century Australia 

8. Genocide in the United States 

9. Settler Genocides in Africa, i830-i9io 132 

Rummel has fitted a number to his own conclusion that "the mass murder 
by emperors, kings, sultans, khans, presidents, governors, generals, and other 
rulers of their own citizens or of those under their protection or control is very 
much part of our history." He counts 133,147,000 victims of sixteen democides 
before the 20th century (including ones in India, Iran, the Ottoman Empire, 
Japan, and Russia) and surmises that there may have been 625,716,000 demo- 
cide victims in all. 133 

These authors did not compile their lists by indiscriminately piling up every 
historical episode in which a lot of people died. They are careful to note, for 
example, that the Native American population was decimated by disease 
rather than by a program of extermination, while particular incidents were 
blatantly genocidal. In an early example, Puritans in New England extermi- 
nated the Pequot nation in 1638, after which the minister Increase Mather 
asked his congregation to thank God "that on this day we have sent six hun- 
dred heathen souls to Hell." 134 This celebration of genocide did not hurt his 
career. He later became president of Harvard University, and the residential 
house with which I am currently affiliated is named after him (motto: Increase 
Mather's Spirit!). 

Mather was neither the first nor the last to thank God for genocide. As we 
saw in chapter 1, Yahweh ordered the Hebrew tribes to carry out dozens of 
them, and in the 9th century BCE the Moabites returned the favor by massa- 
cring the inhabitants of several Hebrew cities in the name of their god. 


Ashtar-Chemosh. 135 In a passage from the Bhagavad-Gita (written around 400 
CE), the Hindu god Krishna upbraids the mortal Arjuna for being reluctant to 
slay an enemy faction that included his grandfather and tutor: "There is no 
better engagement for you than fighting on religious principles; and so there 
is no need for hesitation. . . . The soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, 
nor burned by fire. . . . [Therefore] you are mourning for what is not worthy of 
grief." 136 Inspired by the conquests of Joshua, Oliver Cromwell massacred every 
man, woman, and child in an Irish town during the reconquest of Ireland, and 
explained his actions to Parliament: "It has pleased God to bless our endeavour 
at Drogheda. The enemy were about 3,000 strong in the town. I believe we put 
to the sword the whole number." 137 The English Parliament passed a unanimous 
motion "that the House does approve of the execution done at Drogheda as an 
act of both justice to them and mercy to others who may be warned of it." 138 

The shocking truth is that until recently most people didn't think there was 
anything particularly wrong with genocide, as long as it didn't happen to 
them. One exception was the 16th-century Spanish priest Antonio de Mon- 
tesinos, who protested the appalling treatment of Native Americans by the 
Spanish in the Caribbean— and who was, in his own words, "a voice of one 
crying in the wilderness." 139 There were, to be sure, military codes of honor, 
some from the Middle Ages, that ineffectually attempted to outlaw the killing 
of civilians in war, and occasional protests by thinkers of early modernity such 
as Erasmus and Hugo Grotius. But only in the late 19th century, when citizens 
began to protest the brutalization of peoples in the American West and the 
British Empire, did objections to genocide become common. 140 Even then we 
find Theodore Roosevelt, the future "progressive" president and Nobel Peace 
laureate, writing in 1886, "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indi- 
ans are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like 
to inquire too closely in the case of the tenth." 141 The critic John Carey docu- 
ments that well into the 20th century the British literary intelligentsia viciously 
dehumanized the teeming masses, whom they considered to be so vulgar and 
soulless as not to have lives worth living. Genocidal fantasies were not uncom- 
mon. In 1908, for example, D. H. Lawrence wrote: 

If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, 
with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; 
then I'd go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the 
sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would 
smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the "Hal- 
lelujah Chorus." 142 

During World War II, when Americans were asked in opinion polls what 
should be done with the Japanese after an American victory, 10 to 15 percent 
volunteered the solution of extermination. 143 


The turning point came after the war. The English language did not even 
have a word for genocide until 1944, when the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin 
coined it in a report on Nazi rule in Europe that would be used a year later to 
brief the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials. 144 In the aftermath of the Nazi 
destruction of European Jewry, the world was stunned by the enormity of the 
death toll and by horrific images from the liberated camps: assembly-line gas 
chambers and crematoria, mountains of shoes and eyeglasses, bodies stacked 
up like cordwood. In 1948 Lemkin got the UN to approve a Convention on the 
Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and for the first time 
in history genocide, regardless of who the victims were, was a crime. James 
Payne notes a perverse sign of progress. Today's Holocaust deniers at least feel 
compelled to deny that the Holocaust took place. In earlier centuries the per- 
petrators of genocide and their sympathizers boasted about it. 145 

No small part in the new awareness of the horrors of genocide was a will- 
ingness of Holocaust survivors to tell their stories. Chalk and Jonassohn note 
that these memoirs are historically unusual. 146 Survivors of earlier genocides 
had treated them as humiliating defeats and felt that talking about them would 
only rub in history's harsh verdict. With the new humanitarian sensibilities, 
genocides became crimes against humanity, and survivors were witnesses for 
the prosecution. Anne Frank's diary, which recorded her life in hiding in Nazi- 
occupied Amsterdam before she was deported to her death in Bergen-Belsen, 
was published by her father shortly after the war. Memoirs of deportations 
and death camps by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi were published in the 1960s, 
and today Frank's Diary and Wiesel's Night are among the world's most widely 
read books. In the years that followed, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Anchee Min, 
and Dith Pran shared their harrowing memories of the communist nightmares 
in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia. Soon other survivors — Armenians, 
Ukrainians, Gypsies — began to add their stories, joined more recently by Bos- 
nians, Tutsis, and Darfuris. These memoirs are a part of a reorientation of our 
conception of history. "Throughout most of history," Chalk and Jonassohn 
note, "only the rulers made news; in the twentieth century, for the first time, 
it is the ruled who make the news." 147 

Anyone who grew up with Holocaust survivors knows what they had to 
overcome to tell their stories. For decades after the war they treated their 
experiences as shameful secrets. On top of the ignominy of victimhood, the 
desperate straits to which they were reduced could remove the last traces of 
their humanity in ways they could be forgiven for wanting to forget. At a fam- 
ily occasion in the 1990s, I met a relative by marriage who had spent time in 
Auschwitz. Within seconds of meeting me he clenched my wrist and recounted 
this story. A group of men had been eating in silence when one of them 
slumped over dead. The others fell on his body, still covered in diarrhea, and 
pried a piece of bread from his fingers. As they divided it, a fierce argument 
broke out when some of the men felt their share was an imperceptible crumb 


smaller than the others'. To tell a story of such degradation requires extraor- 
dinary courage, backed by a confidence that the hearer will understand it as 
an accounting of the circumstances and not of the men's characters. 

Though the abundance of genocides over the millennia belies the century- 
of-genocide claim, one still wonders about the trajectory of genocide before, 
during, and since the 20th century. Rummel was the first political scientist to 
try to put some numbers together. In his duology Death by Government (1994) 
and Statistics ofDemocide (1997) he analyzed 141 regimes that committed demo- 
cides in the 20th century through 1987, and a control group of 73 that did not. 
He collected as many independent estimates of the death tolls as he could find 
(including ones from pro- and antigovernment sources, whose biases, he 
assumed, would cancel each other out) and, with the help of sanity checks, 
chose a defensible value near the middle of the range. 148 His definition of 
"democide" corresponds roughly to the UCDP's "one-sided violence" and to 
our everyday concept of "murder" but with a government rather than an indi- 
vidual as the perpetrator: the victims must be unarmed, and the killing delib- 
erate. Democides thus include ethnocides, politicides, purges, terrors, killings 
of civilians by death squads (including ones committed by private militias to 
which the government turns a blind eye), deliberate famines from blockades 
and confiscation of food, deaths in internment camps, and the targeted bombing 
of civilians such as those in Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. 149 
Rummel excluded the Great Leap Forward from his 1994 analyses, on the 
understanding that it was caused by stupidity and callousness rather than 
malice. 150 

Partly because the phrase "death by government" figured in Rummel's 
definition of democide and in the title of his book, his conclusion that almost 
170 million people were killed by their governments during the 20th century 
has become a popular meme among anarchists and radical libertarians. But 
for several reasons, "governments are the main cause of preventable deaths" 
is not the correct lesson to draw from Rummel's data. For one thing, his defi- 
nition of "government" is loose, embracing militias, paramilitaries, and war- 
lords, all of which could reasonably be seen as a sign of too little government 
rather than too much. White examined Rummel's raw data and calculated that 
the median democide toll by the twenty-four pseudo-governments on his list 
was around 100,000, whereas the median death toll caused by recognized 
governments of sovereign states was 33,000. So one could, with more justifica- 
tion, conclude that governments, on average, cause three times fewer deaths 
than alternatives to government. 151 Also, most governments in recent periods 
do not commit democides at all, and they prevent a far greater number of 
deaths than the democidal ones cause, by promoting vaccination, sanitation, 
traffic safety, and policing. 152 

But the main problem with the anarchist interpretation is that it isn't 


governments in general that kill large numbers of people but a handful of 
governments of a specific type. To be exact, three-quarters of all the deaths 
from all 141 democidal regimes were committed by just four governments, 
which Rummel calls the dekamegamurderers: the Soviet Union with 62 mil- 
lion, the People's Republic of China with 35 million, Nazi Germany with 
21 million, and 1928-49 nationalist China with 10 million. 153 Another 11 percent 
of the total were killed by eleven megamurderers, including Imperial Japan 
with 6 million, Cambodia with 2 million, and Ottoman Turkey with 1.9 mil- 
lion. The remaining 13 percent of the deaths were spread out over 126 regimes. 
Genocides don't exactly fall into a power-law distribution, if for no other rea- 
son than that the smaller massacres that would go into the tall spine tend not 
to be counted as "genocides." But the distribution is enormously lopsided, 
conforming to an 80:4 rule — 80 percent of the deaths were caused by 4 percent 
of the regimes. 

Also, deaths from democide were overwhelmingly caused by totalitarian 
governments: the communist, Nazi, fascist, militarist, or Islamist regimes that 
sought to control every aspect of the societies they ruled. Totalitarian regimes 
were responsible for 138 million deaths, 82 percent of the total, of which 110 
million (65 percent of the total) were caused by the communist regimes. 154 
Authoritarian regimes, which are autocracies that tolerate independent social 
institutions such as businesses and churches, came in second with 28 million 
deaths. Democracies, which Rummel defines as governments that are open, 
competitive, elected, and limited in their power, killed 2 million (mainly in 
their colonial empires, together with food blockades and civilian bombings 
during the world wars). The skew of the distribution does not just reflect the 
sheer number of potential victims that totalitarian behemoths like the Soviet 
Union and China had at their disposal. When Rummel looked at percentages 
rather than numbers, he found that totalitarian governments of the 20th cen- 
tury racked up a death toll adding up to 4 percent of their populations. Author- 
itarian governments killed 1 percent. Democracies killed four tenths of 
1 percent. 155 

Rummel was one of the first advocates of the Democratic Peace theory, 
which he argues applied to democides even more than to wars. "At the 
extremes of Power," Rummel writes, "totalitarian communist governments 
slaughter their people by the tens of millions; in contrast, many democracies 
can barely bring themselves to execute even serial murderers." 156 Democracies 
commit fewer democides because their form of governance, by definition, is 
committed to inclusive and nonviolent means of resolving conflicts. More 
important, the power of a democratic government is restricted by a tangle of 
institutional restraints, so a leader can't just mobilize armies and militias on 
a whim to fan out over the country and start killing massive numbers of citi- 
zens. By performing a set of regressions on his dataset of 20th-century regimes, 
Rummel showed that the occurrence of democide correlates with a lack of 


democracy, even holding constant the countries' ethnic diversity, wealth, level 
of development, population density, and culture (African, Asian, Latin Amer- 
ican, Muslim, Anglo, and so on). 157 The lessons, he writes, are clear: "The prob- 
lem is Power. The solution is democracy. The course of action is to foster 
freedom." 158 

What about the historical trajectory? Rummel tried to break down his 20th- 
century democides by year, and I've reproduced his data, scaled by world 
population, in the gray upper line in figure 6-7. Like deaths in wars, deaths in 
democides were concentrated in a savage burst, the midcentury Hemoclysm. 159 
This blood-flood embraced the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin's purges, the Japanese 
rape of China and Korea, and the wartime firebombings of cities in Europe 
and Japan. The left slope also includes the Armenian genocide during World 
War I and the Soviet collectivization campaign, which killed millions of Ukrai- 
nians and kulaks, the so-called rich peasants. The right slope embraces the 
killing of millions of ethnic Germans in newly communized Poland, Czecho- 
slovakia, and Romania, and the victims of forced collectivization in China. 
It's uncomfortable to say that there's anything good in the trends shown in 
the graph, but in an important sense there is. The world has seen nothing close 


















Nazi, Soviet, ef Japanese 

great terror 





Rummel’s estimates 

Communization of 
Eastern Europe 


if 1 China's land reform 
1 Chinese collectivization 
C/N Pakistan genocide 

Cambodian genocide 


•' — A - 

PITF estimates 

■ Cambodian 

v : T i I I — 

o° cF ^ £ $ £ <° * <o° & $ A 1 5 cP $ o? o° & 

-D -P* o> .oj ,0? ,0? of .of ,o? ,07 o> ,Oi .of ,©>' _o> ,0/ o 

FIGURE 6-7. Rate of deaths in genocides, 1900-2008 

Sources: Data for the gray line, 1900-1987, from Rummel, 1997. Data for the black line, 1955-2008, from 
the Political Instability Task Force (PITF) State Failure Problem Set, 1955-2008, Marshall, Gurr, & 
Harff, 2009; Center for Systemic Peace, 2010. The death tolls for the latter were geometric means of 
the ranges in table 8.1 in Harff, 2005, distributed across years according to the proportions in the 
Excel database. World population figures from U.S. Census Bureau, 2010c. Population figures for 
the years 1900-1949 were taken from McEvedy & Jones, 1978, and multiplied by 1.01 to make them 
commensurable with the rest. 


to the bloodletting of the 1940s since then; in the four decades that followed, 
the rate (and number) of deaths from democide went precipitously, if lurch- 
ingly, downward. (The smaller bulges represent killings by Pakistani forces 
during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971 and by the Khmer Rouge 
in Cambodia in the late 1970s.) Rummel attributes the falloff in democide since 
World War II to the decline of totalitarianism and the rise of democracy. 160 

Rummel's dataset ends in 1987, just when things start to get interesting 
again. Soon communism fell and democracies proliferated — and the world 
was hit with the unpleasant surprise of genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. In 
the impression of many observers, these "new wars" show that we are still 
living, despite all we should have learned, in an age of genocide. 

The historical thread of genocide statistics has recently been extended by 
the political scientist Barbara Harff. During the Rwanda genocide, some 
700,000 Tutsis were killed in just four months by about 10,000 men with 
machetes, many of them drunkards, addicts, ragpickers, and gang members 
hastily recruited by the Hutu leadership. 161 Many observers believe that this 
small pack of genocidaires could easily have been stopped by a military inter- 
vention by the world's great powers. 162 Bill Clinton in parti